field notes on biology and culture

ties between ecology, disease, and anthropology

A: You are not used to this kind of life; therefore the indications bypass you. Yet you are a serious person, but your seriousness is attached to what you do, not to what goes on outside you. You dwell upon yourself too much. That’s the trouble. And that produces a terrible fatigue.

B: But what else can anyone do, don Juan?

A: Seek and see the marvels all around you. You will get tired of looking at yourself alone, and that fatigue will make you deaf and blind to everything else.

—   The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carlos Castaneda

“This he understood: that association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts, and gives a joy which is rarely to be had by keeping to oneself, the joy of realizing how many honest decent capable people there are for whom it is worth giving one’s best (while living just for oneself very often the opposite happens, of seeing people’s other side, the side which makes one keep one’s hand always on the hilt of one’s sword).”

—   The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino

a sticky note to myself

Stephen J. Gould wrote beautifully about evolutionary biology, science and society, and history. He is one of my favorite essayists and I admire him. He wrote the essays that were later compiled into volumes and volumes as a monthly column for Natural History magazine. Each essay took one month to research, structure, write, and edit.

For the spot of favorite essayist, Lewis Thomas beats Gould in my book. His The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher is a collection of short essays originally written for Thomas’s column in the New England Journal of Medicine. The 29 essays in the collection, published in 1974, come from a period of three years.

In both cases, that’s around one month, if not more, to write each essay. 

I’ve been reading pieces by these authors, among those from other literary-science types, and feeling paralyzed by how precise and fluid each is, how eloquent the writers are. 

But a month is a lot of time. 

I recently had a short essay published in an online literary journal. I wrote the original (read: incomplete and rushed) draft in roughly a day, perhaps slightly more. I edited it on and off for more time than I would like to admit. But it came out well in the end. 

I look at Gould and Thomas and am seized by temporal claustrophobia — I have to get to work, I have to start churning out essays and stories if I am to make anything of myself as a writer, I have to make a schedule to balance my research/science life and aspiration to be like my literary idols above, and so on. But things aren’t really that bad. I shouldn’t feel so trapped. Making something good in a month’s time sounds much better than doing so in a week. All that’s needed is to sit down, regularly, over the course of a month, and codify all those sentences that construct themselves in my head.

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

—   Susan Sontag (things that speak to me today)