Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

You are what you eat, especially if you eat fish.

March 5, 2008


Let me start by saying we’re not a bunch of geeks. No pocket protectors or thick-rimmed eyeglasses repaired with tape here. But we do geek out about a lot of things. By that, I mean we get excited by a wide range of things—sometimes inordinately so—many arcane and esoteric. And we drill deep.

WTF? Random food for thought is a veritable catalog of many of my geek outs: Art, urban living, photography, the written word… pretty much anything that catches my magpie eye. Where else have you read about Samuel Pepys’ diary, for instance?

One of Marion’s geek out indulgences is buying the Tuesday New York Times every single Tuesday for the Science Times section. She always finds something interesting in it. On February 19, it was this: An article by Natalie Angier entitled “What People Owe Fish: A Lot.” Angier catalogs exactly what a lot means. And even better, she does it with witty writing, something we both geek out over. The first paragraph of this passage is a perfect example:

You like having a big, centralized brain encased in a protective bony skull, with all the sensory organs conveniently attached? Fish invented the head.

You like having pairs of those sense organs, two eyes for binocular vision, two ears to localize sounds and twinned nostrils so you can follow your nose to freshly baked bread or the nape of a lover’s irresistibly immunocompatible neck? Fish were the first to wear their senses in sets.

They premiered the pairing of appendages, too, through fins on either side of the body that would someday flesh out into biceps, triceps, rotating wrists and opposable thumbs.

Or how about that animated mouth of yours, with its hinged and muscular jaws; its enameled, innervated teeth; and a tongue that dares to taste a peach or, if it must, get up and give a speech? Fish founded the whole modern buss we now ride.

inner-fish.jpgAngier’s source for this startling information? A fascinating new book by Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum—Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

According to the Field Museum, in 2006, a discovery by Dr. Shubin and his colleagues made headlines around the world. It was a fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, a “missing link” between fish and land animals. On expedition in Arctic Canada, they unearthed the 375-million-year-old fossil fish “whose fins contained the same structure found today in the limbs of all walking animals! Tiktaalik represented one of the earliest ancestors of creatures that left the sea to live on land.”

Our inner fish extends beyond physicality too. Angier cites other researchers who point out that fish have some of the most complex social systems known; they help each other and exhibit cooperation and forms of reciprocity. In fact, as her article reports, “In laboratory experiments, the researchers have shown that when subordinate [fish] are temporarily prevented from performing their duties, the fish compensate at the first chance by ostentatiously redoubling displays of helpful behaviors.”

Okay, I geek out as much as the next guy—and perhaps more than some. But doesn’t it seem that the researchers who devised these experiments maybe crossed some sort of line? I hope they’re already married. Let’s say you meet someone in a bar and the conversation turns to what you do for a living. You start talking about experimenting with fish subs and you are so not going home with a phone number.


Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan

December 12, 2007


My Brooklyn buddy Ronnie recently sent me an article published on Nurture New York’s Nature website about New York harbor as Henry Hudson first found it back in 1609. The area was rich with abundant and diverse wildlife—as the article puts it, “Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful.”

What struck me most was not how different New York is today, but this statement that followed: “For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate.” And this was speaking of Europe as it was in 1609.

I forget that about much of the Old World, how denuded so much of it is of significant wildlife and how it has been for so very long. Some years ago, we met a French couple living in St. Louis. They had a daughter about Claire’s age, so we got together with them from time to time, them speaking fairly good English and us making noble attempts at bad French. One beautiful Sunday, we went to the zoo. For the husband of the French couple, the exotic creatures—lions, elephants, tigers—held only passing interest. But he was fascinated by the American wildlife—partly, I think, because it was unfamiliar to him. Wolves, rattlesnakes, black bears, mountain lions… as we saw each of these creatures, we would have the same conversation: “Now, zees one, where does eet leev?” “Here. Well, in America.” “Oh, laaa!”

At the time, I thought he was impressed and alarmed that America was home to so many dangerous creatures. And I’m sure that was a little bit of it. But now, I realize that part of his response was pure wonder that these animals still existed in the wild at all in a place so overrun by civilization.

And that got me thinking about elephant seals. Our recent California trip was one long string of highlights, strung together like, well, a lot of really cool things happening one right after another. But even in that abundant milieu, one highlight that stands out was seeing elephant seals. Scores of them. Hundreds of them, in the wild, stretched out at their land-based rookery just north of San Simeon on California’s Central Coast.


It. Was. Amazing. We had been seeing a fair amount of wildlife all along the way—sea otters, harbor seals, hawks galore and even some deer—but this was a whole different level of being reminded that, no matter how much we plow it under and pave it over, Earth is still first and foremost a natural place. These hundreds of creatures we saw lounging on the beach just yards away were merely the early arrivers of the 15,000 who return here twice a year. The ones we saw were all adult females and juveniles of both sexes. The massive breeding bulls—they can weigh 2-1/2 tons or more—would arrive later. According to the Friends of the Elephant Seal, “the Northern Elephant Seal… spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.” When they are in the open ocean, the adult males live and feed near the Aleutian Islands. The females and juveniles live further south, as much as 5,000 miles offshore. Some females have been reported as far west as Hawaii. We count ourselves as very lucky getting to see these magnificent creatures up close, holding their own along the increasingly less wild Pacific Coast. Maybe a little less lucky getting to be downwind of them. Wow.


Here in the Midwest, we get plenty of reminders that we share this planet with other species too. Too often, it’s as roadkill along the highway. But we also see hawks and other raptors along the highway, not just surviving, but actually thriving. And as human and animal territories collide, animals are becoming more urbanized, more adept at living with their human neighbors. Rabbits, raccoons and, unfortunately, skunks are doing quite well, thank you, in parts of the city and suburbs. The once endangered Canada Goose has become a nuisance on golf courses and in suburban office parks. A pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the fire escape of the Uptown Theater is just one of several that call Chicago home. And last spring, a young coyote wandered into a Quizno’s sandwich shop in the Loop downtown [it was captured and released unharmed].

Sharing space with wild creatures is not without its challenges. Just ask any suburban gardener about deer. And then there are bears. My brother lived on Kodiak Island for a while, where there are apparently more bears than people—Kodiak brown bears, to be precise, larger than grizzlies. The local newspaper would routinely report on any bear scat found around school playgrounds, and he said anytime you went camping or hiking, you always wore a side arm and you always sang or talked to yourself, because the last thing you wanted to do was surprise a bear.

But voracious deer and ferocious bears aside, there is something exciting, renewing and humbling about sharing living space with wild animals. I’m glad we do.

The scary majesty of California’s Redwoods

November 14, 2007


Why is it that the very things that frighten us also intrigue us so? I am more than a little claustrophobic, so of course touring the insanely cramped quarters of the captured German U-boat at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago filled me with morbid fascination. Younger daughter Laurel’s longtime borderline obsession with dinosaurs began when, as a three-year-old, a life-sized animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex scared the bejesus out of her at the St. Louis Science Center. She immediately insisted on being taken to the library to get books on dinosaurs. Knowledge is indeed power.

And when we began planning our trip down California’s coast, I insisted on seeing redwood trees. Not that I’m afraid of trees. I just have a healthy respect for heights, shall we say, especially when no intervening railings or other barriers are involved. The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center is one of my favorite places to take out-of-town guests—I can press against the windows to stare fearlessly straight down the building’s side, putting my complete faith in a sheet of plate glass. But without any such protections, I tend to agree with George S. Kaufman: “I like terra firma; the more firma, the less terra.”

So when I read Richard Preston’s amazing article “Climbing the Redwoods” in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, I was hooked. He talks about unclipping himself from the main rope to climb the rest of the way to the top of a tree named Adventure by the scientist who first scaled it, some three hundred and sixty feet in the air: “There is something unnerving about leaving the main rope behind and going into free motion in the crown of a redwood tree. The main climbing rope is a lifeline that connects a climber to the ground, and it is the escape route out of the tree.” And climbing down, he rappels the last 250 feet to the ground, swinging far out from the tree trunk and opening “the brake on the descender full wide.”

Not that I wanted to climb a redwood, mind you. But I wanted to see these giants—Sequoias or California Redwoods. To touch one and stare up the side of it, watching it disappear into branches and sky.

steinbeck.jpgMy fascination with redwoods isn’t all fear-based, of course. I think it began with seeing photos of a footpath or possibly a road carved through the base of one giant in a textbook or an ancient National Geographic as a kid. Just imagining something that massive, that majestic, that old—some of the largest are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 years old or older—stirred my young soul and made the far west feel like a magical place. Later, reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, one of the moments that stuck with me more than just about any other was his dog Charley’s encounter with a Giant Sequoia.

Preston’s own fascination with redwoods is more than climbing. In “Climbing the Redwoods,” he tells of the amazing ecosystem in the canopy of the California Redwoods. A dazzling array of animals and plants live there—masses of hanging fern gardens weighing tons after a rain, salamanders that never leave the treetops for their entire lives, thickets of huckleberry bushes… even other non-redwood trees.


In the end, we failed to find true giant redwoods this trip. That could have something to do with accidentally finding the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room along the way. But the ones we did find were still beautiful and haunting and impressive. And yes, I did touch them and stare up their glorious sides.

Freezer burn of mammoth proportions

September 19, 2007

mammoth.jpgWhen I first saw this Columbian mammoth skeleton [Mammuthus columbi] at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, my first thought was not, “Hmmmm, I wonder how mammoth meat would taste.” My first thought was more along the lines of whether or not I could outrun one if the situation ever presented itself.

Granted, unlike the sabertoothed cats found in this museum [perhaps more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits], mammoths were herbivores. Still, they’re distant ancestors of modern-day elephants, also herbivores, who are famously known for being territorial, irritable creatures who will quite suddenly and unpredictably stomp measly little humans to death. And they’re big. Really, really big.

reader_cover.jpgSo, no, my first thought was not how I might prepare a mammoth steak. Apparently, though, that thought has crossed the minds of more adventurous souls, even before the advent of The Flintstones. In the September 14 issue of the Chicago Reader, Cecil Adams tackled this very topic in his always illuminating, always amusing column, The Straight Dope.

As its motto says, The Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It’s taking longer than we thought].” Every week in the Reader and other publications—and now online—Adams and his crack research team cover a new arcane question from a reader. And they cover it remarkably thoroughly in the far less than 1,000 words of space the column is allotted.

The question in question had to do with a story about members of The Explorers Club thawing out, cooking and eating a prehistoric woolly mammoth [a hairier, slightly smaller cousin of the 13-foot tall Columbian mammoth]. The reader wanted to know if this group or anyone else in modern times had actually done so. The full—and fully entertaining—answer is here.

The short answer is yes, though not as often as many people have bragged. Typical, right? Regarding how it actually tasted, contrary to some highly suspect reports by the aforementioned braggarts, the answer is pretty bad. A Russian zoologist Adams cited tried a bite and said, “it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer.” Yeah, about 10,000 years too long.

Adams summarizes beautifully thus: “Let’s keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash ’em down with Tab.”

Little prairie on the, um, prairie

August 1, 2007

The entrance to the prairie was less than auspicious. Less than promising, for that matter. We arrived at the tiny gravel parking lot at the end of a dead-end street to find the narrow gate on the tall, rusted chain link fence secured with a heavy chain and padlock.


We’d driven some 30 miles down to 159th Street in the southern suburb of Markham, Illinois, to hike around in “the largest remaining example of high-quality grassland in Illinois” only to find it seemingly closed. But looking closer, I realized that the chain had a lot of slack in it. I gave the gate a push, and it swung open enough for us to duck in under the chain. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to keep hikers out—just ATVs, dirt bikes and such.

aphrodite-on-bw.jpgThe rest of the Indian Boundary Prairies [incorporating the Gensburg-Markham Prairie] are equally basic in terms of services. There is no visitor’s center, no gift shop—there are no restrooms. What there is, though, are more than 300 acres of prairie looking much as it did 8,000 years ago. Prairies or grasslands once covered the entire central part of the North American continent—more than 140 million acres. Less than one percent of that original prairie still survives.

Prairies don’t knock your socks off like mountain ranges. They don’t immediately inspire hushed awe like forests. When we stepped inside the chain link gate our first visit, I have to admit I was less than impressed. Off in the distance, semis rumbled along I-294, and utility poles strung with power lines cut right through the middle of the huge open space. [One set of power lines has already been buried, we since learned, and the Nature Conservancy, Northeastern Illinois University and the Natural Land Institute, who own and manage the site, are negotiating to have these lines buried too.]

dickcissel.jpgAs soon as we headed down one of the trails, though, and started taking in all the wonderful details around us, the beauty of the prairie became apparent. There was life everywhere. Wildflowers were scattered throughout the grasses. Butterflies, bumblebees and other insects flitted, buzzed and hopped around. And there were birds. Some only made their presence known with their songs, but others flew overhead or perched on fences, power lines or plant stalks. Hawks, redwing blackbirds, goldfinches. A pair of unfortunately named Dickcissels plotted our progress for a while, moving from plant to plant, announcing that this was their territory.

Suddenly, it was easy to imagine the prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction and to understand its quiet power. We spent a couple of hours hiking around, stopping often to just look and listen. [Okay, and freaking out over the ticks. When we realized we’d forgotten to bring insect repellant, I was thinking mosquitoes, not ticks. I was happy to learn that these are not the Lyme disease-carrying ticks, just the annoying ones. For our second visit, we used insect repellant—end of tick problem.]

As we were about to leave that first afternoon, another visitor appeared. We talked for a moment, and when our geeky enthusiasm for the place became apparent, he excitedly asked if we wanted to see some wild orchids. We of course did. Turns out the other “visitor” is Northeastern Illinois University biologist Ron Panzer. He’s spent some 25 years helping restore this patch of prairie, successfully reintroducing the Franklin’s ground squirrel, the Regal fritillary butterfly and a host of other creatures and plants.

We ended up spending an extra half an hour or so trying to keep up with Dr. Panzer as he bounded around, pointing out countless subtle things we’d missed and filling us up with more facts than we could possibly retain. It was great.


At his urging, we came back to Indian Boundary Prairies a few weeks later and found it completely different, as he said we would. Grasses taller, new plants in bloom, even more butterflies. And for me, at least, I found an even greater respect for the subtle beauty of the prairie.

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