Consider the Mussel


Consider the mussel.  Not the invasive zebra or quagga mussel – those freshwater invasives that plug sewers and ruin turbines in the midwest – nor the foul tasting ribbed mussel that buries itself in salt marsh mud and tastes just like it.  No, consider the blue mussel, Mytilus edulus –  “edulus” from the latin: edible.


So edible, in fact, that Moules et frites  is one of Belgium’s national dishes.  A Belgian restaurant in Washington D.C.  we ate in once had what seemed like dozens of delicious-sounding variants on the menu. Moules marinière, Moules natures, Moules à la crème, Moules parquées, Moules à la bière, Moules à l’ail, etc. – the blue bivalve seems to electrify the culinary imagination.


Once steamed open, there are two distinctly different types of mussels – yellow and orange.  They taste identical and there are about equal numbers of the two colors. Turns out that the creamy white ones are male while females are described as being of a “warmish orange”.  It makes one wonder if our species’ propensity for racial bigotry might evaporate if the sexes of us humans were similarly divided by color.  


Blue mussels epitomize the word sedentary –  spending their adult lives stuck fast to the surface they first settle on – but “sedentary” doesn’t do justice to the tenacity with which they adhere to structure.  Wresting them off the rocks to which they typically anchor themselves can be nearly impossible thanks to a two part system involving a unique glue laid down at the ends of multiple thread-like structures known as “the beard” to mussel eaters and byssus to marine biologists.  For eaters, the beard is a bother. It feels like a foreign body in the mouth and tastes and feels like chewing on sewing thread. Attached to a muscular organ in the muscle’s innards it needs to be forcefully removed before the mussels are cooked. But to bioengineers and inventors, what byssus is made of and how it is formed is a beckoning path to fame and fortune.   The threads are unique among fibers since they combine bungee cord elasticity (stretchable to 160% of original length) with Herculean strength (5 times stronger than the human Achilles tendon) – an extremely unusual combination of fiber properties.,


How byssus fibers adhere to rocks has been another active focus of scientific investigation. There are mighty few good glues that can be used under water, yet mussels know how to make an excellent one.  Sadly, they never patented the process. Now, after slicing, dicing, crushing and otherwise murdering to dissect bushels of mussels, bioengineers from Genex and Bio-polymers have done just that. Soon heart  surgeons may have a glue to close bloody wounds, the U.S. Navy may be doing underwater glue repairs and we may someday see a ruptured Achilles tendon replaced with a byssal cable stuck to our heel and calf muscle with mussel glue!  Stockholders in Genex and Biopolymers will smile but it’s unlikely that marine ecologists studying mussel dieoff will see big grants based on mussel royalties.


We H. sapiens are not the only ones with a taste for Mytilus edulus. Like our own species a blue mussel typically spends its youth drifting around aimlessly – though these little mussel trochophores, veligers and pediveligers face armies of filter feeders ranging from sunflower seed-sized crustaceans to schoolbus-sized  whale sharks. And even after they settle down and stick themselves fast to a huge chunk of granite they remain vulnerable to being harvested and being boiled alive by us, swallowed whole by diving ducks, crushed by the toothy jaws of blackfish, drilled into by dog whelks,  or subjected to the dismal fate of being pried open by a starfish’s arms and then hosting that creature’s whole stomach which the echinoderm has everted onto the mussel’s newly exposed innards.


As a child, summering on the Rhode Island coast where the rock-drop from receding glaciers makes perfect mussel habitat, I could pick a meal’s worth in half an hour.  That was well before they started showing up in supermarket seafood cases in the ‘70’s followed soon after by appearances in NYTimes recipes. Since then, I’ve watched their price steadily increase and their numbers among the rocks steadily dwindle to the point that a summer supper of wild mussels is now almost unheard of.


Speculation about the causes of the decline includes over-harvesting, pollution, ingestion of microplastics, higher water temperature, excessive non-human predation, degradation of native DNA by the escaped gametes of coddled farmed mussels, a mussel epidemic or some villainous mix of all these usual suspects.  Scientific consensus seems to be settling on the fact that the decline’s causes are multifold and man-made, a fate now being suffered by untold numbers of other species. One peer reviewed paper documented that the southernmost edge of the blue mussel’s range drifted 350 km northward from Cape Hatteras North Carolina to Lewes, Delaware between 1960 and 2010.  In Rhode Island now, if we find any they’re hidden in deep crevices on the northeast side of rocks – protected from the intense heat of the afternoon sun. And now when we bring home a meal’s worth of mussels, they come from farms in colder Canadian waters.


It’s humbling to consider the mussel while watching surf crash on  the Rhode Island boulders where a few still remain . Here is a species that seems to have been around for about 200 million years.  It spends its infancy drifting defenseless in the ocean currents. Then after two or three months when it finally decides to settle down it typically chooses a spot regularly bashed by three or four foot waves every 15 seconds and by twelve or thirteen foot rogue rollers whenever an angry coastal storm comes along – and apparently loving it.  The fact that this hardy creature is now in trouble, as are so many other fellow travelers on spaceship earth is telling us something.  


Credible investigators put the number of different species in the ocean at about a million, with about three quarters yet to be discovered!  Meanwhile we go on turning up the ocean heat with our greenhouse gasses and producing plastic from fossil fuel at a geometrically accelerating rate with annual production rising from zero to 400 million tons between 1950 and today   One can only wonder what kind of miraculously useful substances like byssus and mussel glue will come from those yet to be discovered marine creatures if we can just get to them before warmer oceans cooks them out of existence  or we clog them to extinction with plastic. 


Interfaces, Uncrossable Boundaries and Event Horizons


When I reached the age of ten, I was judged old enough to accompany my father on Captain Harold McLaughlin’s 70 foot wooden trawler.  By then, I had watched the Marise enter the harbor of refuge at Stonington many times. Protected on three sides by massive granite breakwaters, the port was home to one of Connecticut’s few remaining commercial fishing fleets.  You could identify the Marise well on the breakwaters’ seaward side because she was the fleet’s only trawler with parallel masts front and aft instead of a mainmast and a diagonal sprit.


McLaughlin would jockey Marise into position – parallel parking style – next to the Bindloss Dock ice house and unloading site.  Then I’d watch crane jaws disappear down into the Marise’s hold and emerge – like a gynecologist’s forceps delivery – cradling wooden barrels of the catch and transferring them into the fish shed on their way to Fulton’s Fish Market in New York.


My mother was responsible for the friendship.  Before my father and McLaughlin knew one another we would sometimes tour Stonington as part of a Sunday outing.  One day my mother stgruck up a conversation with Mr. Bindloss, the dock’s owner and after exchanging pleasantries he offered to give us a tour of his sparkling yacht tied up at the end of the dock.  Sensing after a while that my father was more of a fisherman than a yachtsman he offered to introduce him to “the finest damn fisherman in the Northwest” and a lifelong friendship began. Being a skilled carpenter my father pitched into the endless repairs on the hard working trawler and treasured the opportunity of going out on the Marise several times a year in exchange.


For me, trips out on the Marise were a summer highlight.  Shaken awake in the 3AM dark I’d doze on the ride to the dock and then rouse to the smell of fish and diesel fuel – the latter giving way to clean ocean air as we left the dock but the former a permanent part of the voyage.  McLaughlin would keep the Marise at half speed within the harbor but even below in the galley one knew we’d passed the breakwater as the engine pitch increased and the boat encountered the rhythmic swells of the open Atlantic.


Since it was usual for the boat to encounter them at an angle other than ninety degrees the resultant combinations of pitch, roll and yaw were irresistibly soporific- up and down, side to side, speeding down and forward , slowing and sliding back – movements mirroring those our womb-borne primate predecessors must have experienced as their mothers brachiated from branch to branch.  I’d sleep again until another sudden change in engine speed signaled we’d reached the fishing grounds.


Up on deck and firmly advised to stay out of the way I’d watch the set.  As the Marise crept forward in a gentle arc, the heap of tarred twine net piled astern was hand fed overboard by the one man crew.  Then as her speed increased, the chains connecting the still floating net to two huge oaken “doors tightened, the doors lifted up and over the sides and the huge drums holding the steel cables attached to them began to unspool.  It was at that point that the interface was breached – the doors splashed beneath the sea’s surface and, dragging the net down behind them, disappeared.


Their descent and disappearance was magical and would send my imagination into high gear.  What was it like on the way down – light dimming and pressure mounting as the doors, affixed on a tilt, drew open the nets entrance, the air-filled floats holding the top edge up, the leads and chains pulling the bottom edge down and the giant maw beginning to swallow fish even on the descent.  What was it like as the chains finally hit the bottom and were dragged like the edge of a giant hoe along the sea floor scooping up bottom-dwellers like flounder, crab, whelk and lobster; bushels of kelp; small boulders and the occasional upperworldly oddity like a boot or World War II shell casing?  What was it like to be a finfish suddenly finding itself crowded with thousands of others along with the occasional shark and ray into the bag at the net’s cod end ?  Was there fear, panic or just a reflexive impulse to swim away. And what did it sound like; were there shrieks of despair and cries of desperation?  Did the fish moan in pain at the end of the drag as the net was pulled upwards, water pressure fell and swim bladders burst?


Interfaces  do that – they get your imagination going.  It’s the mystery of it. Much of the time they represent inaccessibility.  Like crime scene tape. Or gated estates. Or the event horizons of black holes. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on on the other side.


Sometimes I’d slip back to age six or seven and become the skipper of an airborne trawler dragging its nets across farms and forests, the net’s chain-bottom edge uprooting trees and corn and outbuildings and along the way collecting rabbits and raccoons and packing them in with the occasional bobcat at the cod end and leaving behind a tornado-like swath of devastation.  As their homes exploded into splintered clapboards on the net’s ground-scouring weighted edge did mothers grab their children and run desperately forward, though hardly fast enough to escape. 


Not a happy picture at all, but when you think about it a pretty accurate reflection of what we’ve been doing to the ocean environment for decades.  Little wonder fish populations have crashed.


The most daunting interface, the most forbidding one  – unbreachable, actually – and one  readily overlooked is one for which we don’t even have a proper word.  Ego, identity, sense of self, consciousness, I-ness: they all circle the target but miss the mark. None connotes the unbreachability of the border separating us from everybody and every thing else – everything in the universe!  A person who is colorblind can’t even know what a fire engine looks like to someone with full color vision any more than we can ever really know what an other person thinks, let alone what a bat thinks or, God forbid, what or even if a galaxy thinks. 


Renee Descartes observed  that “I think, therefore I am” thereby setting off a couple of centuries of speculation that since one’s  “I”ness is the only thing one can be certain of then everything else might simply be a hallucination. Thomas Nagel took on a followup question posed by his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?and ended up answering with a resounding “it’s impossible to know!”  And just recently British author, historian and birder Richard Smyth in his book A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing reminds us that although bird song is given meaning in poetry, literature, film and music it is alway the meaning which we and not the birds attribute to it.


We may strive mightily to bridge the gap, to fully connect with an “other”.  We may guess that we connect. We may pretend. But let us be honest. The gulf, even between I and the most cherished and intimate Thou,  remains.


In spite of the present apparent inaccessibility of any mind-entity other than our own, I can’t imagine that bat’s think nothing, that they have nothing resembling our mind,  that behind that furry face dipping and diving and uttering complicated squeaks and clicks there is not anything at all resembling thought or feelings.  And even though I tremble at the notion of disagreeing with a bonafide philosopher of Nagel’s stature I think it is wrong to claim that bridging the gap is impossible.   I suspect that Plato would have described as “impossible” ever being able to call up thousands of pictures of bats with a couple of finger twitches on a computer keyboard. 


Drags on the Marise usually lasted for an hour or two and the most exciting times by far were when most of the net was hauled in by hand, a couple of turns of rope around the top of the cod end were hooked to the winch and the net’s bulging “bag” was lifted over the rail.  McLaughlin, as skipper, always was the one to reach under the dripping tonnage and pull the bowknot – sending a torrent of thousands of fish out onto the Marise’s deck while we, standing knee deep in the squirming flopping multitude, began sorting out the “keepers” and tossing the “trash” overboard.  At the time I gave no thought to the devastation of the seafloor environment we’d left behind or what it was like to be a flounder slowly suffocating in the hold below. Sixty-plus years later, looking back, it’s a different story.


A recent New York Times Opinion piece about testosterone by Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young got me thinking, but not about what you might expect.  What it got me thinking about was my fraught relationship with athletics.  The article by these two distinguished sociologists began with a discussion of a ruling by the Court of Arbitration in Sport which declared that females with naturally high testosterone levels could not compete as women unless they made efforts to reduce their testosterone levels.

Unlike most normal men, I can’t sit through five minutes of a sports event on TV, and wouldn’t shell out five let alone five hundred dollars for tickets to a World Series game.  In a detached sort of way, I do appreciate a particularly skillful header into a soccer goal or a clever basketball fake out, though I’d much rather get a glimpse of a peregrine falcon’s daredevil stoop on a pigeon.

It has occurred to me that my current lack of interest in athletic events may have its roots in my youthful lack of athletic skills.  In high school, I was a well-practiced bench warmer. The only times coaches would put me in games were when our team had a comfortable lead.   Perhaps I was a terrible athlete because I had low testosterone – though my voice cracked, I grew a mustache and the rest of puberty’s weirdness happened right on schedule. Or maybe my brain is just wired funny.   Either way the decision by the Arbitration Court raises some provocative questions.

Clearly, many determinants of athletic success are genetic.  The average height of an NBA basketball player is 6’7” inches and the average male height in the USA is 5’9”.   I don’t think that’s because from the age of 5 on the NBAers strove to be good at basketball and worked hard to be taller.   Genetic science has DNA sequence determining 80% of adult height. Nutrition and childhood illness probably determines the other 20%. And according to the most recent report from the National Center for Biotechnical Information, the heritability of muscle strength ranges from 30 to 80% and the heritability of lean body mass is 50 to 80%.  

So, if the decision by the Arbitration Court becomes settled precedent and athletes with genetic advantages are to undergo interventions to return them to “normal”, NBA players will have to have ten inches surgically removed from their lower extremities and weight lifters would have to undergo fat transplants. That doesn’t seem particularly likely but it’s clearly wrong to make a woman with a genetic advantage undergo medical “correction” while ignoring the issue in men.

Interest in athletic competitions is deeply ingrained in much of the human psyche.   Competitive games which drew large crowds arose independently in widely separated ancient cultures. The Greeks had their Olympics, the first North Americans their lacrosse games, the Japanese their Sumo wrestling competitions, the Mayans their life or death ball games , and the ancient Chinese their Cuju.  Some of these activities had military origins but even before organized warfare, teamwork and physical skill were major factors in early human hunting success. It seems likely that the survival of a clan or tribe of our prehistoric ancestors was often determined by the success of the hunt. Those with genes for strength and teamwork were more likely to survive. 

Teamwork isn’t unique to Homo sapiens.  A step or two back from myopic anthropocentrism reveals other species demonstrating group activity towards a common goal.  The coordinated hunting behavior of our close relative the chimpanzee has been well documented as has that of wolves, hyenas, wild dogs, and lions  (all, curiously, close relatives of two of our favorite pets).  But other examples of similar behavior include orcas, dolphins, some birds of prey and a few species of ants.  It’s tempting to imagine some bit of genetic code in all those species saying “You are meant to get together, figure out who’s to do what and go for it.” 

But if so, mine seems to have been deleted and I must admit, it feels like a disability.   When a group of friends get together to watch the home team compete in a championship game on TV I find some excuse to beg out.  And when, after a win, the conversation turns to analyzing the details of the game my mind wanders. I imagine they feel the same way when I chatter about a recent bird sighting.  It sets me apart, and not in a particularly good way. 

I’d make a lousy soldier but I’m probably here, living a safe and privileged life, because coordinated groups in the past successfully defended themselves against invading hordes (or, just as likely, pillaged others and made off with their wealth and wives).  Either way, that’s risky stuff requiring teamwork and physical skills. How come I didn’t get some of those genes? Perhaps it’s because my ancestral line cowered in the shadows, dodged the draft, went AWOL when a battle threatened. Not really something to be proud of, but here I am.

 Despite Thomas Jefferson’s assertion, all men are not created equal.  Neither are all women. A random hit on a DNA base pair or just the right roll of the chromosomal dice can go a long way towards making  the difference between a star athlete and a bench warmer. But it’s not much fun to think of athletic contests in those terms. Too much cognitive dissonance.  Better by far not to pull aside the Ozian curtain and discover the real wizard, though the judgement of the Court of Arbitration in Sport makes this pretty hard to do.

I’m not sure whether it is a function of age and experience or the dizzying rate at which modern science and burgeoning information keep turning things upside down but we seem to be getting knocked out of our collective comfort zone more and more these days:  Modern agriculture will feed an ever increasing population. Oops, hold on.  All that plant breeding and monoculture has left us vulnerable to massive crop failure because of loss of genetic diversity in the food supply.  Antibiotics are wonder drugs.  Uh, think again, their overuse is causing the evolution of bacterial superbugs.  Those chlorinated biphenyls make terrific refrigerants. Wait a sec.  Ozone disappears and we all get melanomas.  Omega-3 fatty acids are the key to longevity.  Perhaps, but their source happens to be the small fish at the base of the oceanic food chain and seafood makes up a critical part of the diet for around 3 billion people. The industrial revolution freed humanity from incredible amounts of toil and suffering. Perhaps for a while, but our satanic contract with fossil fuels now threatens earthly life as we know it.

It seems virtually impossible for a person with half a conscience to make it through ten minutes without feeling guilty.  The alarm of our plastic clock goes off and we think of the great oceanic garbage gyre; breakfast – hens and hogs in crates too small to turn around in; clothes shopping online – child labor in china; trip to the grocery – should be using mass transit but it’s so inconvenient; pay the electric bill – ought to install rooftop solar but it’s so expensive; pay the heating bill – need to drop the themostat another 5 degrees; dinner – those avocados are shipped all the way from Mexico and the hamburg, well at least that particular cow is done farting.

I’m anything but a historian, but it is tempting to compare the proliferation of ideas, information and technology we’ve enjoyed since the Renaissance to the Greco-Roman age.  Then, as now, life for many became immeasurably better but old cultural assumptions and ways of thinking were displaced by new ones. Did that cause similar cognitive dissonance and, if so, was that the root cause of the ten centuries of darkness which followed?  It’s hard not to hear the jabber – “……climate change is a hoax”, “……vaccines make kids sick”, “…..Darwinian evolution is all wrong” – without fearing that there are barbarians at the gates.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  No less a genius than F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”   Remaining determined to make things otherwise sounds like the right approach to our modern predicament. 



For those fortunate enough to experience love’s first physical touch, the accompanying rush of joy is unforgettable.  Whether it comes as the the warmth of a newborn child held against a parents chest or the first time hands are held between partners who will spend a lifetime together, the accompanying shiver of ecstasy etches an indelible memory.

I put up a wren house behind our place last fall, hoping to reproduce a childhood experience of being awakened by the energetic song of a pair nesting in the woodpile outside  my bedroom. This spring a cascade of lusty trills broadcast success.  A pair of house wrens were romping about like a pair of smitten lovers.  Hopping from branch to branch, their trembling bodies radiated ecstatic energy.  Every few seconds one of them would pop into the box entrance, stay inside for a bit, then pop back out.  Then they both would do a whole body shiver. It was a scene of pure joy.

Some would dismiss that description as baloney.   Alexandra Coughlan in her review of Richard Smyth’s book  A Sweet Wild Note reflects common wisdom: “Birds sing not for joy or exultation, as the poets would have us believe, but for immensely practical reasons. They need to advertise for a mate, mark their territory or warn other birds of danger.”   She may be right, though I believe something more was going on with those two wrens. First, they’d already found each other. Second, there wasn’t any other bird around against which they needed to protect their discovery of a perfect nest site.  And third, there was no danger in the vicinity. Those birds certainly looked as though they were celebrating their discovery of one another and of finding the perfect place to raise a family.

Quintessentially joyous events – falling in love, experiencing the birth of a child, hearing one’s true love say “I do”, learning of a loved one’s recovery from a serious illness – are mostly even more about the future than the present. Pleasure is feeling good now.  Joy is certainly pleasurable now but it is multiplied by the anticipation of intense pleasure in the future. Happiness is a toned down version of joy. Ecstasy is joy spiritualized.

One isn’t smitten by pleasure or even happiness but one can be smitten by joy.  It often comes unexpectedly and typically evokes a physical response at the smiting moment:  hopping, dancing, clapping, shouting – for joy. The word apparently has its roots in the Latin  – gaudere – to rejoice – and the Oxford English Dictionary says of rejoice “To feel or show great happiness.” (italics mine). Assuming those wrens were experiencing great happiness, they were clearly showing it.

Some scientists – Richard Dawkins prominent among them – theorize that all of existence consists only of matter and energy as we know them. He and his fellow evangelical ontological materialists urge us to believe that ideas and feelings are exclusively explained by electrical discharges careening along a network of biological wires.  Joy, for them, is fully explained by a physical brain some of whose hypercomplex connections have been made super-efficient by a sudden dopamine bath. Watching those wrens, and reflecting on my own firsthand experiences with the undeniable substantiveness of a flush of joy, I find that explanation hard to swallow.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel comes at the issue from a different direction, arguing that the most undeniable element of reality is the primacy of our own perceptions, thoughts and feelings.  The physical stuff follows.  That goes down better for me.

Stephen Hawking says that a theory is basically a model for making predictions.  He’s given some thought to how to tell a good theory from a not so good one and offers up four criteria which the ideal theory should fulfill.     “1. It is elegant. 2. It contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements.  3. It agrees with and explains all existing observations and 4. It can make detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.”

Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology, he says, was a fairly satisfactory model of reality given the mathematics and instruments of his time, though it required some arbitrary tweaking to create an accurate calendar.  Then Copernicus, using more sophisticated math and more careful geometric measurements, demonstrated the superiority of a heliocentric view of the solar system in predicting the movement of the planets and producing a calendar with fewer illogical fudge factors. Copernicus’s view, Hawking says, better fulfilled the four elements of a good scientific theory.

Nagel’s view fulfills the Hawking criteria a lot better than Dawkins’. Elegance?  For something to be perceived as elegant, it must create a feeling of rightness in the observer.  Adjustable elements? The face reality of a perceived intense feeling requires no arbitrary or adjustable elements. Explaining all existing observations(aka perceptions)? Well yeah!  But when it comes to making detailed predictions about the future, our ideas and feelings do fall short, as efforts to time the stock market prove time and again! The evangelical materialists miss all of Hawkings’ criteria.  At least Nagel gets three out of four.

I got used to the happy avian couple singing and dancing around their little house for a couple of days, but then they vanished.  A cat on the loose had been prowling the neighborhood and I suspected that one of the wrens had fallen prey to that critter’s feline instincts.   I was sad that the pair didn’t complete their nest but I  imagine the remaining mate felt much worse. Grief comes to mind.

The high altitude thrill of a joyous event undoubtedly risks grief should tragedy befall the object of one’s delight. Viewed from 100,000 feet, the trajectory of my own mortal span (for which I don’t recall signing a contract)  ends in some pretty significant losses and goodbyes, at least as we currently understand things. In the meantime, though, knowing how fragile and ephemeral joyous things are makes them all the more precious.

Perfect Oysters; Imperfect Produce

I rarely open the NYTimes Style Magazine but last year one of its headlines caught my eye, asking, in 23 point New Times Roman,  “With Cultivation Have Oysters Become Too Perfect?


The essay summarizes oyster farming’s history (which apparently dates from ancient Rome) and oyster popularity (which has waxed and waned for generations).  The article ends with a description of the way modern aquaculture methods produce a handsome standardized product year-round with fewer of the risks and less of the romance of the wildlings of the past.


Come to think of it, that’s something which can said about much of modern life.  Crossing the country in a covered wagon in 1840 must have been a lot more romantic than a commute to work but the per mile risk of dying on the Oregon trail was 0.167% compared to the .000001% risk of driving a mile in 2008.


Of course eating a wild oyster isn’t as risky as trekking the Oregon trail but you can still die of cholera or cut yourself on the razor sharp shell.  Meanwhile the farmed ones are checked regularly for pathogens and often tumbled by their growers to knock off those nasty sharp edges and , as one grower brags, tumbling makes their shells “prettier”.



The Merriam, Webster Dictionary defines “pretty” as “pleasing in a delicate way”.  That may be stretching it a bit as a descriptor of tumbled oysters but it does seem to properly describe a quality present in abundance in the produce section of grocery stores.  Its pursuit has surely boosted the bottom line of pesticide manufacturers – thereby threatening butterflies, honey bees and who knows how many other arthropods – and that standardized perfection is a major hardship for organic farmers since their crops often rank low on the prettiness spectrum.


Recognizing that produce falling below the aesthetic standard of grocery chains often was destined to rot in the field or in a farm’s compost pile proved inspirational to the entrepreneurial founders of “Imperfect Produce” whose mission is “to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.”

By strengthening the market for fruits and vegetables that don’t look exactly like the archetypal apples and beets on the pages of children’s books the company claims to help farmers, make food more affordable and help the environment by reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water used to grow food that would eventually go to waste.  We signed up a while back and have been entirely happy with the way the food tastes, sometimes even entertained by the way it looks, and consistently feeling self righteous in that we were doing right by the planet……. until we came across an article in the New /Republic.


Not so fast, the author said:  sounds like greenwashing. Aren’t these folks just competing for produce that would otherwise be sold to outfits that don’t care about looks like catsup producers and cider makers?   Or, worse, wouldn’t much of that produce otherwise be donated to food banks or scavenged by gleaners? And, since they won’t reveal their sources, aren’t they just another customer for corporate agriculture. Meanwhile those oyster farmers trumpet how their hundreds of thousands of caged and tumbled shellfish prevent coastal “dead zones:” by purging  our estuaries and coastal lagoons of excessive algae from our overzealous use of fertilizer. Side effects, however, are that their mechanized power equipment contributes to our atmospheric CO2 load while the areas they’ve leased from the state are off-limits for recreational use by fishermen, clammers, skin divers, and kayakers.


It’s hard to disagree that both perfect produce and pretty oysters accomplish little more than catering to our whims, but some  say the benefits are simply not worth the costs. Both sides have their points but something gets lost in the argument. I don’t think many people find grocery shopping exciting.   All that familiar packaging. All those time-worn logos lining the shelves. The soulless pyramids of carefully stacked identical apples – all precisely the same size, shape and shade of Granny Smith green.  In contrast, there’s actually a bit of adventure when it comes to opening the week’s Imperfect Produce delivery and discovering a corkscrew carrot or, as one happy customer exclaimed, “a sweet potato as big as my head !”.  It’s a feeling not entirely unrelated to slurping a misshapen wild oyster and then marveling at its uniquely ugly shell. As our corporate culture gets better at discerning every detail of what maximizes sales, and as economies of scale wipe out the variety afforded by competition, our lives themselves bit by bit become standardized.  And as each of our whims and caprices are met at lower and lower personal costs our individual skills at doing things for ourselves atrophy. Personal creativity – a quality often stimulated by a surprising turn of events or an unexpected variation – ceases to be necessary or inspired. And the deep sense of fulfillment, and personal accomplishment achieved by making one’s own life better in a uniquely idiosyncratic way is diminished.


A while back, on a road trip out West, my son and I stopped for lunch in a small Montana town.  On one side of the street was a modest mom and pop luncheonette; on the other, a familiar pair of golden arches with its predictably satisfying hamburgers.  We talked over the choice and although we both liked Big Macs well enough we took a chance on the luncheonette. The owner turned out to be a talkative woman and rather than repeating a well-rehearsed corporate script she chatted with us about the area as we watched her carefully assemble our sandwiches on the other side of the bar.  Among the things she told us was that off on a side road on the way out of town there was a bunch of folks from The Smithsonian digging for dinosaurs. That unexpected tip led to an unforgettable adventure exploring a bonafide paleologic dig site. Sometimes taking a chance really pays off. Modern grocery chains, oyster farmers and fast food franchises give us predictability. In exchange, we lose something which is easy to overlook but hard to articulate.  An economist might call it an opportunity cost.


Chemistry has given us those bins of archetypic apples, but in the process we’ve quietly lost some beautiful butterflies while Harvard labs work on miniature drones to pollinate crops in case bees disappear.  We have food science to thank for those perfectly predictable burgers which have so successfully outcompeted the quirky mom and pop operations. The electrifying frisson one experiences on hearing a sound outside one’s tent while camping in Yellowstone Park disappears if apex predators are exterminated because they may reduce the incomes of ranchers’ by taking an occasional calf,  born, incidentally, on public national forest land leased by the rancher for grazing.


H.G. Wells, in  The Time Machine, creates a distant dystopian future occupied in part by the Eloi, one future branch of the human race shaped by progress:  “For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts,…… no need of toil…….They were…. delicate ones” …of …“childish simplicity, decayed to mere beautiful futility, physical and intellectual inadequacy…..And the little people displayed no vestige of a creative tendency. …….. They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping …..A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.”  A bit of an overstatement of the point I am trying to make, but beautifully articulated.


In his contemporary best seller, Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker takes the opposite tack. Extolling the Enlightenment’s methods of thought and the value of quantification, he exhaustively catalogues  (556 pages, 120 graphs, 1297 footnotes) the undeniable and well-known benefits of the modern age. But since technology and the scientific method rely heavily on measurement, Pinker necessarily gives short shrift to the non-quantifiable.  Ignored in his cost-benefit analysis of the Enlightenment’s methods of thought are the thrill of exploring the unknown, the deep pleasure of creating or experiencing beauty, the joy of a happy surprise, the zen of immersion in the natural world, the pride in triumph over adversity,  the wonder of viewing the stars in total darkness. Yes, many of us are warm, comfortable, healthy and well fed, but like the individual whose only tool is a hammer, we keep looking for nails to pound even if, in the process of pounding, less visible things of great value are destroyed.


The crucial challenge of our age is how to deploy our intellectual gifts to escape the addictive power of satisfying our every material whim and caprice at the expense of slowly cooking our planet, driving out of existence a majority of it’s non-human life forms and extinguishing a great many of the profound ineffabilities which are so easily overlooked but much more deeply satisfying.  I do not claim to know the answers to these questions, but in the meantime while I’m working on them I think I’ll go to the grocery, pick up a dozen beautiful farmed oysters and enjoy myself.


Skunks, Sea Lions, Moose, Mice and Us

I paid a fair amount of attention to skunks during childhood vacations on the Rhode Island shore where my folks built a small cottage just before I was born.  The area had been mostly pasture until the 1920’s and by the ‘40s it was reverting to early scrub crisscrossed with stone walls. Most of the cottages were built on piers and the combination of stone walls, scrub habitat and cottage crawl spaces was perfect skunk habitat. The small lawn around each one often showed evidence of nocturnal skunk work as the animals dug for grubs, earthworms  and other mustelid fare.


Skunks lent an air of high adventure to any nighttime foray.   A flashlight was a must – its beam sweeping side to side in search of black and white stripes.  Once, when an exceptionally long afternoon Monopoly game at a friend’s house was followed by a flashlightless walk home after dark, a too-close-for-comfort encounter remains burned in my memory.  But years later when my then-widowed mother spent summers in the cottage alone, skunks provided considerable peace of mind. “Need to keep my guard dogs happy.” she’d explain as she tossed out food scraps in the evenings when I was visiting.


Over the past several decades things have changed.  Located, as it is, halfway between New York and Boston the place has attracted urban big money and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.   And to be honest, we’ve contributed to the trend – disassembling the original cottage and reusing as much of it as we could while building a year round house large enough to accommodate our children and grandchildren for lovely family vacations together.  But the skunks are gone.


It wasn’t intended.  We didn’t mean to make my mother’s guard dogs homeless.  But now they exist only in the realm of family lore. Meanwhile our neighborhood lawns are awash in chemical grubicides.  


Nowadays we spend part of each year on the west coast where sea lions have been in the news.  They’re members of a select group of non-human species with a high brain to body size ratio – joining elephants and dolphins and bypassing our primate relatives –  chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas. They’ve been shown to solve IQ tests that many humans have trouble passing.  A captive California sea lion studied by the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz could use basic logic (If A=B and B=C then A=C).  In rankings of zoo animals’ popularity sea lions rank just behind llamas and ahead of rhinoceroses .  One poll respondent said “Sea lions are cute, friendly, playful, happy and loving sea creatures.”   

But their populations are fragile.  As numbers approached endangered species levels in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the US congress passed the Marine Mammal Population Protection Act in 1972.  That law according to the US Fish and Wildlife service, prohibits, with certain exceptions, the “take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas…”    Why, then, is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now killing them?  It’s a long story.


In the 1920’s the US Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to examine ways the Columbia River might be developed to benefit flood control, navigation, irrigation and electricity – an action which had been advocated over a decade earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inland Waterways Commission.   In 1932 the Corps submitted their “308 report” whose recommendations found their way into then candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign promises and reached their denouement with FDR’s speech dedicating the completed Bonneville Dam on September 28, 1937.  Consideration of ways to mitigate the dam’s impact on salmon migration was begun only after construction was well underway. Fish ladders and bypasses were thus retrofitted and subsequent improvements in the fish bypass system have resulted in gradual recovery of salmon runs after the dramatic decline of stocks caused by interrupting the river’s free flow.    But here’s the thing:  before keying in on these bypass routes many endangered salmon now congregate in the area just below the dam.


Like humans, sea lions have the capacity for culture – defined by some as the accumulation of  knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends on the ability to learn and then transmit knowledge to others and then to succeeding generations.  They share another human trait as well which makes the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service’s step towards specicide more understandable. Like Homo sapiens,  Zalophus californianus relishes salmon.  Eventually, a few sea lions venturing upstream in the Columbia discovered the salmon smorgasbord below the dam and, intelligent and generous creatures which they seem to be, spread the word among other members of their tribe:  “There’s an easy feast to be had just a short swim up the Columbia.”


It is no small irony that the president who started the ball rolling towards this dilemma was the same one who established the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Wildlife Refuge System, doubled the number of sites within the National Park system and is considered by many to be the “conservation president”.   And it is even a less small irony, it seems to me, that the same creature which built the dam to improve its quality of life is now planning to kill off another creature (whose existence it had also once threatened) because it is taking advantage of a situation the first creature has created!    


In spite of our good intentions we certainly have a way of muddling things up.  In the 1950’s scientists discovered that the blood of horseshoe crabs contained properties that can very efficiently detect bacterial contamination of biological preparations like vaccines.  Horseshoe crab populations, already under pressure as a source of bait in crab and lobster pots, fell dramatically as their blood was harvested for this purpose. Then birders noticed that the red knot – a shorebird famous for performing one of the longest migrations known – was in serious decline.  Why? It turns out that a series of critical refueling stations along the route make it possible for these five ounce feathered fluffballs to fly from the arctic to the antarctic and back every year.

One of the critical refueling stops? – the Chesapeake Bay horseshoe breeding grounds.   For millennia the ancient crustaceans have been depositing billions of high energy eggs on the bay’s mudflats and red knot migration has evolved to correspond exactly with the blessed events.  Better detection of human infection, fewer horseshoe crab eggs, more malnourished red knots arriving on arctic breeding grounds, fewer knot eggs, fewer knots.


Of course, sometimes our species’ behavior unwittingly has actually boosted wildlife populations.  Our eating habits have been very beneficial for Mus musculus, North America’s native house mouse.  The mice have returned the favor and enhanced our population a bit by becoming a critical part of many successful medical research projects.  We’ve also given quite a boost to Periplaneta americana, AKA the American cockroach !


Sometimes our relationship with other species gets really complicated. Since the 1940’s Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park  has been home to a population of moose and some wolves. Over the years, the moose population has oscillated between 2300 and 700 and the wolf population between  50 animals and 12 – the balance between predator and prey keeping the herbivores from destroying their finite food supply and providing a living laboratory for a variety of ecological studies reported in hundreds of papers in scientific journals. This was how “nature” was supposed to work.  Recently, however, at the nadir of one of the wolf population oscillations, a confluence of events – accidents, illnesses, inbreeding – has brought the wolf population down to two – a nine year old male and his seven year old daughter/half-sister – both now geriatric animals.  What’s to be done? The response on the part of biologists, National Park Officials, and The Ecological Research Institute – after considerable thought – has been to capture wolves from elsewhere and replenish the Isle Royale population. So much for keeping National Parks “natural”.


There is a longstanding conversation about whether or not we humans are a part of or separate from “nature ”.   Most modern religions and many political conservatives hold the view that man and nature are separate. The idea spans millennia from the Old Testament’s charge that man “subdue” the earth  “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” to an article in   Forbes magazine entitled, “In the Battle of Man vs. Nature, Give Me Man”, which urges that we “…… give a clear mandate to leaders who celebrate man’s exceptionalism, understanding that the incidental problems created as we harness technology to bend nature to our will can be solved using more technology.”   In contrast, many of today’s environmentalists hold to the view, summarized by one-time White House Press Secretary and journalist Bill Moyers that  “We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it.”


Whether you consider man a part of nature or separate from it, whether we’re inadvertently making skunks homeless or advertently rebalancing a wilderness predator/prey ratio;  it’s pretty clear that we are an integral part of earth’s ecosystem. It is also clear that as our numbers increase geometrically, our impact on that ecosystem becomes disproportionately large.  Is this dominion, or, like a wolfless population on Isle Royale are we now in danger of despoiling our habitat, threatening our quality of life and even risking our own demise?


Fortunately, like sea lions and elephants, we are relatively intelligent. And, like those crows and parrots Jennifer Ackerman writes about in The Genius of Birds, , we are problem solvers.  So what’s to be done? Perhaps a place to start is revisiting the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970.  That Federal Statute requires that certain federal and non-federal projects require an analysis of their environmental impact. That may be a start, but the act has no approval or disapproval capacity nor does it establish a body to make such determinations.   It merely says the information needs to be collected and considered. And there seems to be a great deal of controversy about where the line is drawn defining which actions require an EIS and which do not.  While it would be quite a radical departure from the status quo and something not at all likely to happen in our current political climate, perhaps it is worth considering an agency more like the Food and Drug Administration which would either approve or disapprove projects of  large enough scope based on the project’s environmental pros and cons.


There would be lots of details to work out.  How would projects requiring approval be defined?  How would enforcement occur? Would there be an iterative process to identify the types of projects which should have fallen under the jurisdiction of the agency but did not, but turned out later to have important unexpected environmental impacts (like horseshoe crab phlebotomies).  Imperfect lines would surely have to be drawn., No matter what, I’m afraid,  such an agency could never go fishing with a project net fine enough to prevent a project that would result in a homeless skunk .

Going….going……… gone?


You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”.  In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects.   And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne.  In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time.  When was the last time that happened?


Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle.  It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.


The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of  individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.


The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring.  Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons,  eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy.  Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes.  And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).


But insects?  Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets).  Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.  


If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg –  if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom.  What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?


Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question:  loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above.  Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”  


Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.”  “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.”  “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”


Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next?  By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.


If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them.  In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.


One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate.   This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.  


Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial.  Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome.  But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?


First don’t hunt for a silver bullet.  We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start.  Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that  it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.


Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle.   When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players.,  Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response.  And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.


Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked.  “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance.  Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.


             *If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?


On Filleting a Fish




Fair warning:  People for whom I have great respect have suggested that this essay is better suited to a sporting magazine than Cereflections.  But it has been over a year since anything new has shown up on the blog. Call it a dry spell, writer’s block, or sloth; the spell needs breaking and this effort aligns with a basic belief that there is much to be gained from thinking below the surface of mundane activities.

Apology – In this essay, the word “fisherman” is not intended to be sexist.  There are plenty of women who love to fish and are excellent at it. “Fishermen” is used in a purely gender-neutral sense rather than fishermenandwomen” or “fisherpeople” simply out of convention.  It is intended to mean all people who fish.


You can learn a lot filleting a fish.   Yesterday a flock of raucous gulls telegraphed the arrival of a school of Morone saxatilis and one member mistook a blue and white plastic surface plug for breakfast.  You’d think she would have known better. Based on her thirty inch length she had run this gauntlet at least ten times before and should have come to recognize the vast majority of lures dragged across her path by fishermen as she moved north in the spring and south in the fall along the rocky glaciated shores between the Chesapeake Bay and Labrador.

A fish can be either skinned or scaled.  The latter occurs before any cuts are made and takes advantage of the fact that scales are carefully arranged to overlap like shingles, with the unattached edge pointing tailwards.  This makes sense aquadynamically for the fish and lets the scaler, while securing the fish with one hand, draw the back of a stiff knife headwards, popping off a snowstorm of scales along the way.  

These snowflakes look like simple miniature shingles until the fish slips out of the butcher’s hand leaving it covered with a handful of slippery slime. The first reaction is often “yuck” but on second thought it raises a couple of questions.  Where does that mucus covering the scales come from? Does it do anything besides annoy the fisherman?

It turns out that each scale is not an inert slab but rather a flat piece of fingernail-like material sandwiched between very thin layers of living skin which is loaded with the same kind of tissue which produce slippery surfaces in………us……. lining the insides of our mouths, our GI tracts and the other slippery slidey parts of our anatomies.  That mucus covering of fish is created in situ  from the surface of each scale.

And it serves many purposes.  A slippery fish arrows through the water with less friction than an unslippery one, expending less energy getting from here to there.  Also, It turns out that there are lots of tiny things swimming around in most fish’s environments aiming to settle on a fish and do all sorts of damage.   But since the mucus layer of a fish is constantly being washed off and replaced as the fish swims along, many of those would-be pathogens and parasites trying to hitch a ride are simply sloughed off along with the surface layer before they can wreak any havoc.  And on top of that, chemical analysis of the mucus reveals a protective soup of antibodies and natural antibiotics! With luck, before many species are driven to extinction by ocean warming, we’ll be extracting powerful new weapons against human pathogens from fish mucus!

One can think of “fish” in one of two ways.  Either it’s that delicious and presumably healthful thing on our plate or it’s that whole creature driving bait to the surface, dangling at the end of a fishing line or swimming around in an aquarium.  And if you think about that whole fish’s parts, they include a tail, some fins, a head, some innards and the rest – and it’s “the rest” which ends up on your plate in the form of fillets.

Except for an occasional annoying fishbone,  those fillets are pure muscle. In the majority of fish,  fillets are mostly white but there is often a bit of darker muscle too. The darker red muscles are used for constant, relatively unenergetic exercise like holding position in stiller water.  The white muscle is specialized for strenuous activity that require lots of energy fast. That bass launched at the lure from some fast-moving chaotic surf and wasn’t kidding when she came out of the water and hit the lure with force: all that white muscle in action.

As many cartoons involving garbage illustrate, a fish skeleton involves a central backbone with backwards-slanted fishbones protruding in a single plane from its vertebrae.   The filleter’s job is to separate the muscle cleanly from those bones using a sort of sharp knife – “sort of” because razor sharpness risks slicing through the bones, leaving them in the fillet, while a dull knife makes the job exceedingly difficult and risks wasting large amounts of flesh.  

The process starts at the uppermost part of the fish and involves running the knife edge between the bones and their attached muscle while lifting up the separating flesh.  This process, done well, makes two things about fish anatomy clear. Each fillet, if it is peeled off those slanted fishbones, can be seen to be a series of parallel segments, and each of those segments is devoted to one of those slanted fishbones.  So when that fish blasted through the surf towards what it thought was breakfast those high speed white muscle segments were contracting in a carefully orchestrated fashion to create a powerful back and forth undulation propelling the fish lureward.

Once the fillets are off it becomes clear that for striped bass, the head occupies about a third of the animal.  If we were built like that our chins would be just above our navels. But on closer look (at the fish) that comparison is not bad because the head really extends backwards to include the gills, and the gills, after all, are the fish’s lungs – and our lungs would be in our heads if our chins were down around our navels!   The similarity doesn’t stop there because right between their two gills, tucked under the nape of the fish’s neck (if there is such a thing) is the fish’s heart – like ours – located between the two structures that extract oxygen from whichever medium the fish or we have evolved to survive in.

Under the gill covers – those flat hard semicircles at the back end of a fish’s head – lie parallel rows of hundreds of delicate red finger-like projections.  Looking into the fish’s mouth makes it clear that between each row of these gills is a linear gap through which water can pass as the fish moves forward.

Predatory fish typically pursue their prey by lunging through the water, mouth open like the leading edge of a fishing trawler’s net.  What rushes in is split into two parts. Water and the small particles suspended in it are sent out over the gills to be drained of its dissolved oxygen in the process.  Before entering the gills, however, it must pass through a set of coarse boney fingers called gill rakers which deflect larger material down its gullet: a nice arrangement if you are hoping to catch your dinner while charging through the water with your mouth open.  In fact, you never have to stop eating to breathe!

But once you crawl up on land and don’t catch your food by rushing around with your mouth open, a lengthy commonality between food and air passageways is nothing but an accident waiting to happen.  Nonetheless, in most mammals the route food takes as we eat shares, for several inches, the route air takes as we breath. Considering the number of “cafe coronaries” (adult sudden death from food suddenly lodged in the airway), and the number of childhood choking fatalities (an incidence of 0.66/100,000) one wonders why the slow grind of evolution hasn’t fixed that Darwinian handicap.  

Seagoing mammals with blowholes, however, are way ahead of us.  In whales and dolphins, the airway is completely separated from the esophagus; no deaths from choking for them.  So maybe all that speculation about their brains also being more advanced than ours isn’t so far off. Of course, there is a tradeoff – cetaceans are unable to breath through their mouths.  But whoever heard of a whale with a stuffy nose?

But back to the task at hand.  Most good fishermen after they have filletted their catch, take a look at what it had been eating.  Tucked along the fish’s belly right behind its chin is a cavity containing the animal’s visceral organs  – among them its liver, gonads, and digestive tract. The stomach is easily identified as a muscular pouch which often is bulging with the creature’s last meal.  Opening it can be revealing. Sometimes its emptiness gives a hint that the creature was hungry enough to take a chance on an iffy looking meal. But since striped bass are notoriously unpicky eaters their stomach contents are often more interesting.   Sadly, an occasional plastic straw or tampon applicator comes tumbling out but more typically the stomach contains all sorts of prey fish like menhaden, silversides and herring, as well as crabs, shrimp, mussels, baby lobsters and squid. The more curious fishermen take a closer look and make sure their next lure bears some resemblance to what the fish have been feeding on that day.

Tucked neatly into the same cavity as the fish’s stomach are its gonads.  Since female bass are larger than males of the same age, most keepers are female and the one that fell for that blue and white piece of plastic was no exception.  Just inside her belly two glistening golden, structures bulged with next springs eggs. Most fishermen feel a twinge of remorse on looking at all these future trophies – leading many to advocate for what is called a “split” size limit – restricting keeper bass to those between, say, 24 and 30 inches.   This would allow more wise old “cows” to lay their huge clutches of millions upon millions of eggs, making for more young fish per clutch and possibly selecting for more challenging ones.

Striped bass prefer rocky shorelines and one of the commonest places to clean a fish is right on the shore  using a boulder as a work table. By the time the task is wrapping up the fisherman has typically attracted an audience of those same gulls which had earlier telegraphed the fish’s presence.  Now, as if expecting payoff for their betrayal, they eye the process hopefully. In the event of carelessness on the part of the butcher – a trip to the water’s edge to rinse hands for example – they are not above pulling a double cross and lifting a fillet or two from the pan in which they lay.  More experienced butchers know better than to turn their backs, however, and may even disappoint the audience by taking everything that remains home for stock. A more common finale, though, is to send the fish’s head back into the sea for the crabs to dine on and toss toss chunks of viscera to the waiting avian audience, underscoring the fact that we humans are just one more step in a great ecological loop.              


Animal Minds

Image by Elana Larena in Discover Magazine


After quite a bit of trial and error, I think I’ve outsmarted the squirrels in my front yard – at least for a while.  Now that the bears have holed up for the winter, I’ve put out the bird feeders and what with sunflower seeds and peanut-embedded suet cakes within eyeshot they’ve risen to the challenge.  It’s been something to watch,  but a forty dollar Lexan umbrella over the sunflower seed feeder and a slathering of canola oil on the metal post that holds up the suet seems to have foiled them, at least for now.

The suet pole is located near the tip of a slender, flexible apple tree branch.  A squirrel tightropes out much of the way and studies the suet but then retreats despite the fact that she is within 3 feet of her goal – a distance that I’ve seen her easily cover from other more solid launch sites.  What’s holding her back, I think, is the branch’s flexibility which would absorb much of the energy of her leap.   Is she really just pre-programmed to take the distance, her leapability and the stability of her launching platform into account or is there something more complex going on?  If so, that seems like a pretty sophisticated conscious calculation.

There has been much written lately about animal minds, and I am not speaking here about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  In Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina, writing with his usual grace, assembles a mountain of careful observations to build a convincing case for complex feelings and thoughts among elephants, wolves, orcas and other species. Jennifer Ackerman – an equally gifted writer – takes a similar tack  in The Genius of Birds, focusing especially on corvids and parrots. In addition to observations about avian thoughts, feelings and problem-solving, Ackerman makes a powerful case for a true aesthetic sense among the bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia.  On more personal notes,  Lynda Lynn Haupt’s up very close and personal observations of a pet starling inspires her to research the relationship between Mozart and his own bird pet bird in Mozart’s Starling, while Helen MacDonald in H is for Hawk details the complex relationship between the goshawk she is training and her own grieving spirit,  noting along the way how the bird’s eyes laugh while playing with a toy she’s made for it.  In a Zen-like drift she gradually comes to actually think like the bird when the two hunt together.  And recently the New York Times science section ran a video showing dolphins goofing around in front of a one-way mirror and reported that these animals developed self-awareness well before humans


It is difficult to come away from reading these four books and watching that video anything less than convinced that elephants grieve, wolves cooperate, orcas have sophisticated communication methods, dolphins have fun, crows and jays have advanced puzzle-solving capabilities and bowerbirds appreciate certain kinds of art when they see it.   With this explosion of similar information it is hard not to believe that we humans have been selectively blind to animal emotions and thoughts for a long time, though that should come as no surprise, really, given our stubborn insistence on our incredible superiority –  from the days of believing the universe rotated around us onward.  Humility has never been what the “H” in  H.sapiens has stood for.

There  is  quite a list of candidates which have been held up historically as the quality which makes us superior. Opposable thumbs, tool making, language, altruism, etc have all had a run until some naturalist finds another species that has the same quality.  Granted, we are better at some of those than any other species, but what is it that makes those particular qualities the special ones.  There are plenty of other things we aren’t very good at like finding our way to  a small atoll in the southern hemisphere after spending a couple of years soaring over the Pacific Ocean or recalling the exact spots where we’ve buried a winter’s supply of hazelnuts in the forest floor the previous summer.

What it may come down to, perhaps, is a super-tautology:  we are unique because we possess a unique set of abilities ( just as every other species has its own unique set.)

Another way of thinking about what makes us special is the way we exploit.  Of course every creature has to sustain itself.  Herbivores eat plants.  Carnivores eat meat. Omnivores eat everything.  And some species of ants keep slaves and keep herds of aphids.  But we humans have taken exploitation of our environment to a new level.  We have our prey, of course, but what about our clothes, our shoes, the horsepower and oxpower that led us to the industrial revolution, those ships of the desert and water buffalo that are still in use today, the bomb sniffing dogs, the homing pigeons carrying coded messages over enemy lines, the generations of great whales that lit our lamps and oiled our machinery?  And that’s just a list of the exploited animals.  Consider all those plant fibers that make up most of our textiles, the palm leaves fanning pharaohs, the chocolate bean husks mulching our gardens.  And we’re still talking just about biota.  Now think of the water we consume manufacturing, the mountaintops we remove mining.   Compared to all those other life forms which get by pretty much entirely on their own except for the nutrients necessary to sustain their metabolism,  we are exploiters without equal. Though it may not be something to boast about,  it is beginning to look as though that massive exploitation is the quality which separates us from the rest of life on earth!  – the elephant in the room until now because it is such an ignoble quality.

Of course exploitation need not be all that bad if you can sanctify it in some way.  Conceptualize a truly supreme being to which all else is by definition vastly inferior. Imagine yourself made in his or her image – though with a few imperfections.  Then be given authority by that power to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Pretty heady stuff.  Makes a virtue of exploitation.  And once you have that supreme being in whose image you’ve been created, it’s easy to set up a hierarchy that values other bodies and minds better or worse in proportion to how they resemble your own.

Clinging to that belief of a hierarchy is pretty convenient.  Without it a great many of our ethical foundations are candidates for rearrangement.  If animals, or at least many animals , are more than unfeeling unselfconscious automatons;  if they do indeed, experience grief, terror, security, love, beauty or even feel intimations of immortality it’s kind of disquieting to continue with business as usual.  Just look at all the trouble caused by the realization that human bondage was really, really wrong.

I’m not at all sure where this is all going to lead.  I like my steak just as much as anyone and I don’t think Zinke is going to become a tree hugger any time soon. But I do sense  some movement.  It may take a while to sort all this out but I think a couple of generations from now we are going to be leading very different lives.

*    *    *    

Post Script:  As I’ve been mulling over these conundrums, that squirrel  has figured out that if he tries to climb up that slippery pole enough times he’ll eventually rub off enough grease  to be able to shinny all the way to the top and gorge on that suet – successfully exploiting the exploiter of Bos taurus who hung it there.


A Wild September Ramble

Today is the kind of early September day that makes me want to swallow the earth, imbibe all of its fragile enormity, fall down on my knees before its dazzling beauty and worship it with all the passionate zeal my amygdala can muster – accepting with humility the eucharist of this glorious blue globe.  Today is the kind of day when my heart sparkles with the crystal clarity of the sky and ocean.  Today I want to join those murmurations of tree swallows flowing in liquid synchrony, their morphing river an unvirtual kaleidoscopic screensaver against a cerulean sky as they scour the feastladen air for tiny fellow fliers whose bits of energy will fuel the trip to the swallows’ winter home.This morning is the kind of morning whose light makes the air itself a visible, tangible thing and reveals the fact that all that holds this essential life-sustaining aura against the earth and keeps it from flying off into the darkness of space is gravity!


Today is the kind of day that makes me look at the migrating monarchs with respectful awe, imagining the miracle of their silent flight, fueled by sips of flower juice and taking them, pollutionless, from here to the mountains of Mexico – all in vivid contrast to the growling steel fabrications that carry us to Walmart while spewing streams of stuff to soil our personal space.  Today is the kind of day where thousands of sunshards ricochet off perfectly angled wavelets and put to shame the bejeweled artifices of all history’s emperors combined.  Today is the kind of day that  makes me think, as the sea levitates in response to the pull of the rising moon, that you and the moon and the sea and I are all made of the same stuff and that the same force deforming our globe and lifting entire oceans of seawater moonward pulls on us.   The force and the idea both stretch my mind, lift my spirits.


For anyone who cares to listen, the whole of it plays like a great symphony – individual beauties blending in magnificent harmonies  The music swells, expands, explodes like a grand fireworks show, then ebbs to a fragile poignant thread.  Aldo Leopold heard it.  So did Rachel Carlson.


Paradoxically though, just as my spirit swells,  I grow brutally aware of my personal insignificance – spatially, temporally and intellectually.   Somewhere between the inner workings of subatomic particles and the edges of the outer ripples of the big bang – somewhere between that first unimaginable flash of the beginning of what we know and the end of everything – my MEness comes and goes as a far-thinner-than-a razor’s edge scintilla. Stephen Crane expressed a similar feeling:


” A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”


Are the two viewpoints reconcilable?  I think so. The crucial word in Crane’s poem is the “I”. By getting the distinction between “me” and “it” into better perspective the distortions created by our sense of personal self-importance can be at least partially corrected and the tragedy of our inconsequential evanescence softened.


Martin Buber explores the issue with his reflections on the I-Thou and I-it relationships.  Zen “enlightenment” may be getting at the same thing  by  jettisoning the distractions of our personal cravings to achieve peace and understanding. So may the Old Testament’s description of man created in God’s image if thought of  in its broadest sense with God being more the whole of Creation rather than some creator.  And so is the modern conservation movement’s theme of recognizing that Homo sapiens is an inseparable part of nature – a reality which may explain why wilderness, given the opportunity, can be so spiritually uplifting.


To begin to get things right, to correct the distortions, to reconcile our sense of self-importance with the vastness of time and the cosmos – requires merging the “me” with the “it”  by giving ourselves to creation rather than having dominion over it, by giving the earth and things on the outside of our thin skins the same sacred value as the “us” and the “ours”.  This needn’t involve asceticism or self sacrifice.  Deep appreciation of the miracle of creation and the value and interconnectedness of all things is a place to start.  Replacing self-satisfied certainty with curiosity about how a butterfly thinks is progress.


And there is other brainwork that can help.  The ideas of Copernicus and Galileo exposed the hubris of a geocentric universe.  Jane Goodall showed us that tool-making didn’t make Homo sapiens so very special.  Myriad researchers have proven that those bird brains do many things well beyond the capacities of ours. Carl Safina lays out plenty of evidence that other species have very complex systems of communications.  And even within our own skin, we now know that, thanks to work of microbiologists at the Weizmann Institute, there are just about as many bacterial cells cohabiting the very space I call “me” as there are cells that bear my DNA!


But even though we are not the center of the universe, not the only tool making species or the only one with a language, not even the only occupant of our own skin, we are singular in some ways:  our species is growing in number faster than any other, we are rapidly depleting global diversity, we are steadily devoting the surface of our planet to the few types of organisms we can eat or wear and we seem to be dead set on turning the whole thing upside down by monkeying with the very air all of life breathes! So if we want to keep glorious September days like this one appearing every time we hit this part of our annual trip around the sun it’s time to do whatever we can to get things right.


Thankfully,  today is the kind of day that makes my mind strain at its moorings, to free itself to explore new ways of thought, to head off toward the horizon of its eye and explore uncharted waters. Today is the kind of crisp September day which makes me want to think with the clarity of its air and realize that my conceptual world is not as flat as it seems, that its horizon is really not the end of what there is and, as I hope and suspect, instead of that worn out image of an old guy with a beard reaching out to make stuff for his personal entertainment, the beyond reveals startling unimaginableness.  Even if the success of such a mental voyage is a long shot, this is the kind of day which makes it feel right to give it a try.