field notes on biology and culture

ties between ecology, disease, and anthropology

“A poet is, after all, a sort of scientist, but engaged in a qualitative science in which nothing is measurable. He lives with data that cannot be numbered, and his experiments can be done only once.”

—   Lewis Thomas

Using her career as a molecular biologist as a starting point, Katherine Larson shapes her poems with descriptions of squid, suction cups and branchial hearts. She won last year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and was recognized as a poet of “genuine promise” with the Kate Tufts Discovery Award last month.

We are taught that the brain
Is a set of highways;
Corpus callosum,
Optic radiation.

But there are other roads, as well.
Scenic neural backroads
That are hidden from view;
Dusty and seldom used.

Sometimes we can see them
When the highways are down;
From cancer,
Or a stroke.

Our patient had a brain tumor.
We tested her highways
With a feather drawing;
“What is this?” we asked her.

And the answer she gave
Came by the scenic route;
“A leaf
That fell
From a bird.”

—   "Aphasia," by Noah Capurso

(Source: The New York Times)

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are prayed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where the sunlight filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusc and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

—   Rachel Carson, “Undersea,” 1937, The Atlantic Monthly

"Ants," by Joanie Mackowski

Two wandering across the porcelain
Siberia, one alone on the window sill,
four across the ceiling’s senseless field
of pale yellow, one negotiating folds
in a towel: tiny, bronze-colored, antennae
'strongly elbowed,' crawling over Antony
and Cleopatra, face down, unsurprised,
one dead in the mountainous bar of soap.
Sub-family Formicinae (a single
segment behind the thorax), the sickle
moons of their abdomens, one trapped in bubbles
(I soak in the tub); with no clear purpose
they come in by the baseboard, do not bite,
crush bloodless beneath a finger. Peterson’s
calls them ‘social creatures,’ yet what grim
society: identical pilgrims,
seed-like, brittle, pausing on the path
only three seconds to touch another’s
face, some hoisting the papery carcasses
of their dead in their jaws, which open and close
like the clasp of a necklace. ‘Mating occurs
in flight’— what better way? Weightless, reckless
rapture: the winged queen and her mate, quantum
passion spiraling near the kumquat,
and then the queen sheds her wings, plants
the pearl-like larvae in their cribs of sand:
more anvil-headed, creeping attentions
to follow cracks in the tile, the lip of the tub,
and one starting across the mirror now, doubled.

Inflammation: blessing or curse?

A question still open, best answered in verse?

Can it foretell pathology, sickness, or worse?

In a human for sure, but in bird, fish, or horse?

Let’s consider one host, are finches* OK?

(Will that bias your choice to read on or stray?)

But among all the pathogens, which will it be?

Bacterial, emerging, could we call it MG**?

It swells finches eyes, makes it harder to see,

Harder to forage, harder to flee

Some finches succumb, others fare well,

But predicting just which, how on earth could we tell?

We brought finches indoors, infected them there,

Swabbed eyes and drew blood, but why should you care?

Well, here comes the answer, the abstract’s near done,

We hope it proves helpful, if only to some:

Using cytokine tests, performed on day one,

We predict who fares worst for weeks yet to come.

Is this only MG, or could there be more

Emerging diseases this might work for?

Could this lead to new markers, predicting who’ll spread,

Or populations to target before they’re all dead?

* house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus)

** Mycoplasma gallisepticum

—   "Does early inflammatory signaling predict pathology in an emerging wildlife disease?" (i.e., the greatest scientific abstract ever submitted) —James Adelman, Laila Kirkpatrick, & Dana Hawley


"Birdsong" by Joanie Mackowski

Bustle and caw. Recall the green heat
rising from the new minted earth, granite
and basalt, proto-continents shuffling
and stacking the deck, first shadows flung
from the ultraviolet haze. A fern
uncurls from the swamp, the microscopic furnace
of replication warms the world, one
becoming two, two four: exponential blossom.
Lush with collision, the teacup balance
of x and y, cells like balloons
escaping into the sky—then the dumbstruck
hour, unmoored by a river,
a first fish creeps to the land to marvel
at the monstrous buds of its toes. And stars
grow feet and walk across the years, into these dozing,
ordinary days, climbing the spine’s winding
stair, where crickets yawn and history spins.

"History" by Joanie Mackowski

In the beginning, when the earth was void,

we hadn’t a shadow to hold to, each flooded

with breeze and flux. We hadn’t a hand to grasp
with—we were they, and they were the cusp

of something moving, a swarm that engulfed
beginnings and ends. In the beginning, every-

thing was middle, and lovely to behold
(if you like that sort of thing) back before the old

something-from-nothing routine, before the rootless
abraxas when we blinked and didn’t notice

who stood or cried or threw its drink in whose face,
before we fumed inside our lonely orifice

or walked across the bridge as it assembled
under our feet, our feet fangling the first simple

dance steps up from the swamp, the ladders
of DNA and wrack, our bony love letters

eeked in rock for future generations—
then up from the snowy pages, the engine

unzipping the trees from the horizon,
we sobered into our bright isolation.


“The ideal scientist is one that thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.”

—   E. O. Wilson, TEDMED 2012

“I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!”

—   Lay of the Trilobiteby May Kendall, written after Darwin’s Origin