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Fleabane by Brandon

About two years ago, I started a list on Wordie of fine-sounding words. When I last went to add a word, however, the update function was disabled. I'd probably logged in so infrequently that a defunct-account subroutine kicked in, though I prefer to think of dust gathering on the computers, and a repairman's sneeze sending words sparkling into the air like motes in a sunbeam.

At any rate, it's time to plant a new (and hopefully better-tended) list, and to harvest the old. The last intended entry was the name of a flower I photographed on the morning the old list clunked, then looked up. A short-lived perennial member of the Aster plant family, it flowers between May and July, and is formally known as Erigeron philadelphicus. It's also called fleabane.

Ishkabibble. Not in the dictionary; a slang term meaning "(as if) I should worry!" or "who cares?" that emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. Etymology unknown.

Saxifrage. Any of a genus (Saxifraga of the family Saxifragaceae) of chiefly perennial herbs with showy pentamerous flowers and often with basal tufted leaves. Date: 14th century. Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin saxifraga, from Latin, feminine of saxifragus breaking rocks, from saxum rock + frangere to break.

Hecatomb. An ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice of 100 oxen or cattle; the sacrifice or slaughter of many victims. Date: circa 1592. Etymology: Latin hecatombe, from Greek hekatombē, from hekaton hundred + -bē; akin to Greek bous cow.

Prairie. Land in or predominantly in grass; a tract of grassland. Date: circa 1682. Etymology: French, from Old French praierie, from Vulgar Latin *prataria, from Latin pratum meadow.

Mycorrhiza. The symbiotic association of the mycelium of a fungus with the roots of a seed plant. Date: 1895. Etymology: New Latin, from myc- + Greek rhiza root.

Abstruse. Difficult to comprehend. Date: 1599. Etymology: Latin abstrusus, from past participle of abstrudere to conceal, from abs-, ab- + trudere to push.

Eleemosynary. Of, relating to, or supported by charity. Date: circa 1616. Etymology: Medieval Latin eleemosynarius, from Late Latin eleemosyna alms.

Ocarina. A simple wind instrument typically having an oval body with finger holes and a projecting mouthpiece. Date: 1877. Etymology: Italian, from Italian dial., diminutive of oca goose, from Late Latin auca, ultimately from Latin avis bird.

Amalgam. An alloy of mercury with another metal that is solid or liquid at room temperature according to the proportion of mercury present and is used especially in making tooth cements; a mixture of different elements. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Middle English amalgame, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin amalgama.

Mélange. A mixture often of incongruous elements. Date: 1653. Etymology: French, from Middle French, from mesler, meler to mix.

Axiomatic. Taken for granted, self-evident; based on or involving an axiom or system of axioms. Date: 1797. Etymology: Middle Greek axiōmatikos, from Greek, honorable, from axiōmat-, axiōma.

Arable. Fit for or used for the growing of crops. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, from Latin arabilis, from arare to plow; akin to Old English erian to plow, Greek aroun.

Cash-cropping. (Not in the dictionary; from memory.) The practice of raising crops for sale, rather than as livestock feed.

Elohim. God — used especially in the Hebrew Bible. Date: 1617. Etymology: Hebrew ĕlōhīm.

Parabola. A plane curve generated by a point moving so that its distance from a fixed point is equal to its distance from a fixed line; something bowl-shaped (as an antenna or microphone reflector). Date: 1579. Etymology: New Latin, from Greek parabolē, literally, comparison.

Globophobia. (Not in the dictionary; from memory.) Fear of balloons.

Ferrous. Of, relating to, or containing iron; being or containing divalent iron. Date: 1851. Etymology: New Latin ferrosus, from Latin ferrum.

Crepuscular. Of, relating to, or resembling twilight; occurring or active during twilight. Date: 1668. Etymology: Latin crepusculum, from creper dusky

Twilight. The light from the sky between full night and sunrise or between sunset and full night produced by diffusion of sunlight through the atmosphere and its dust; an intermediate state that is not clearly defined. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Proto-Indo-European dwo + Proto-Indo-European leuk bright, white light.

Parsimonious. Exhibiting or marked by parsimony; frugal to the point of stinginess. Date: 1598. Etymology: Middle English parcimony, from Latin parsimonia, from parsus, past participle of parcere to spare.

Biophony. (Not in dictionary; from memory). The totality of sounds made by non-human animals in a given environment.

Alpenglow. A reddish glow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains. Date: 1871. Etymology: part translation of German Alpenglühen, from Alpen Alps + Glühen glow.

Piebald. Composed of incongruous parts; of different colors, especially spotted or blotched with black and white. Date: 1589.

And because deadlines are pressing, the rest of the words, in one fell swoop: sanguine, tourmaline, paprika, cygnet, anise, vicissitude, Valkyrie, hangers-on, vermilion, pumpernickel, crystalline, chrysoberyl.

Fall Colors by Brandon

I learned only this year that when leaves change color, their essential color is emerging, revealed by a decline in chlorophyll production. There is something deeply gratifying about that. These gold-red fields, this final radiance, are gentle words from an autumn goddess: "Let go. Don't cling, don't worry, stop concentrating, stop trying. Let go, for a moment, and see things as they are and must be. Are they not beautiful?"

Photos from trips to the blueberry barrens earlier this week, in this set.

Notable Mice In My Life by Brandon

The first was a gerbil named Herbie. I was about ten years old. He came with another male gerbil, who turned out not to be male; many more gerbils followed. They had names, too, but Herbie is the only one that survives in memory. Some of their great-grandchildren escaped into a hospital office building; I like to think they established a permanent colony. Mice aren’t gerbils, I know, but really. Close enough. Herbie I considered a friend. I cried when he died, and dug him a grave with a headstone.

Ralph S. Mouse, Stuart Little, Algernon and Reepicheep.

When I was a teenager my family moved to a house in a field. It didn’t take long for the field mice to move in. At first my mother considered exterminating them; I don’t think she considered it very seriously, and it didn’t help that I pressed their case as being God’s creatures, as much as any other she loved. On the whole they were good neighbors, making little mess or fuss, and ate food left over by our dog Comet. I suspect mom put a little food out for them, too.

My dad found a mouse in the cellar that seemed sick and weak, and didn’t run away from him. I put the mouse in a box with a towel and some water, and put the box on the heater. He recovered. Later my dad said a mouse would sometimes sit on his bookshelf, watching him.

In graduate school my roommate thought he saw a rat run under the stove. We sat by the stove for half an hour, drinking whiskey and listening to country music and waiting with a hockey stick and a blowtorch at hand, less out of genuine rat-killing sentiment than the spirit of the moment. Then we went to sleep. The rat turned out to be a mouse; I named him Ralph, and said we should leave him alone. One night I had nightmares about being in an old house with vermin teeming under the floorboards. The next night, as I turned my sheets to make the bed, there was Ralph, crushed flat underneath. That was disturbing.

Natalie Jeremijenko has written about the simple (and non-harmful) behavioral experiments one may conduct on mice living in our homes. Implicit in her propositions is a sensibility of the mice as being both real and independent. In an urban environment in which nature is almost entirely controlled or eliminated, mice are still living in the wild. There is something wonderful about this. I love watching them on the subway tracks.

I often write about biomedical research involving mice, or even the refinement of the mice themselves into genetically diverse models of disease and drug response. I’ve never felt comfortable with this, though I understand the necessity of such research. Recently I visited a prominent breeding center. Hundreds of strains were on display in a tent, developers describing their traits, holding conversations while holding mice in the air, by their tails. I couldn’t handle it and soon went outside. I still support the research, and am fully aware of my inconsistencies.

Over the last several years I’ve seen several mice in my apartment. I assume they entered through a heating duct, and departed the same way. They’re welcome to any crumbs that find their way into the floorboards.

One night last week I was sitting on the couch when Orwell, my cat, pounced near the bed. It didn’t register until he was trotting towards me with something in his mouth; I thought it was a toy, then noticed how long the tail was. Worried that the mouse might have a disease, I took it from him. The mouse was badly wounded but still alive.

I put the mouse in a box on the balcony with some water and a stale Jewish pastry, named him Ralph Jr., and took his photograph. I envisioned nursing him back to health, and writing about him for work, and how if he recovered I might see it as a metaphor of some sort, a sign of good fortune. It would make a good series. As Ralph Jr. huddled in the box, torn and battered, I thought of what he could do for me. The next morning he was gone.

Image: Kevin Czarzasty

Wrong Numbers by Brandon

The phone rang yesterday afternoon. I picked it up.

"Hi, is this Chicky's Run?" asked the caller. She had a jaunty voice with a hint of country drawl.

"I'm sorry, you've got the wrong number," I said.

"Oh. Sorry about that!" she said brightly.

"No problem," I said. "Have a good one."

"You too!"

Afterwards, I found myself thinking that the call had been, in some odd way  I couldn't really articulate to myself, rather pleasant. It had something to do with its unexpectedness, with the sense of flower-potted window opening for a moment into another person's world, and being closed with a polite wave; a small, self-contained and very human moment.

Each day I'm involved in about a dozen business-related calls. In every one, I'm asking someone for something, or being asked. The conversations might be enjoyable, they might even be a talk between friends, but there's a pretext. The Chicky's Run mixup was refreshingly free.

And as I thought about it, I realized that I couldn't remember my last wrong number conversation. When I misdial, I end up in someone's voicemail, and hang up quickly. I assume the reverse is true.  No doubt people make more calls than ever; but in an age of cell phones, Skype and incoming caller ID, this particular interaction seems to have vanished.

Whether it says anything about our historical moment that a wrong number now seems a comparatively meaningful interaction, I don't know. But I kind of miss them.

Image: Dennis Markham

The Language of Horses by Brandon

In a few slender leg bones and fragments of milk-stained pottery, archaeologists recently found evidence of one of the more important developments in human history: the domestication of horses.

Unearthed from a windswept plain in Kazakhstan, the remains were about 5500 years old, and suggested that a nomadic people now called the Botai had learned to ride a creature that had captured mankind's imagination thousands of years earlier.

Among the first literal depictions of just about anything were pictures of horses, drawn on cave walls thousands of years before other Central Asian nomads thundered out of the steppes and across history.

"Our awe in their presence," wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan in Horseman, Pass By , "is as old as anything we can call ours."

Little wonder, then, that between primal fascination, the success of mounted warriors  and the appreciation of farmers, our language should contain such a rich equine vocabulary.

To describe age and sex, there are males and stallions; colts, foals and fillies; mustangs and broncos and greenbrokes and geldings. They come in roan and palomino coats, piebald and dapple, chestnut or dun, medicine hat and pinto and war shield. They can gallop and trot, canter, lope, forge; have fetlocks and forelocks, hocks and coffin bones, gaskins and pasterns; fall victim to azoturia and spavin, fistulous or mutton withers, lockjaw, moon-blindness.

Such wonderful words, the linguistic equivalent of old farm tools whose purpose eludes modern eyes, but are obviously well-made. Many words derived from humanity's long experience from the natural world possess this quality. Take the words recently removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary: beaver, otter, magpie and minnow; dandelion and ivy; willow, sycamore and acorn; liquorice and marzipan; saint, devil, dwarf and goblin.

In their place we get blog, MP3, voicemail, database, chatroom, celebrity, biodegradable, block graph. The dictionary's publishers explain that children are more likely to encounter these words in everyday life. With some exceptions, they're almost certainly right. Still, I can't help hoping that a shipment of Oxford Junior Dictionaries someday sinks in the horse latitudes .

Image: Lascaux cave painting detail, from Wikipedia.

Taxis in Iqaluit by Brandon

Iqaluit is a place where people seem to wash ashore, like Indian wedding decorations or terra cotta pot shards in Jamaica Bay. How did they get there? Where are they going? Who knows? Apart from Inuit and government administrators, it's a rare person who can explain just how he came, by long-thought plan, to live in a city of 6,184 souls, some 1,200 icy uninhabited miles north of Ottawa, a day's snowmobile ride from the Arctic Circle.

"It's so good to see a friendly face," sighed my first taxi driver as I entered the car, an inch-long cut from a rifle sight still fresh between my eyes. "I just got robbed." He explained how his last fare held a knife to his chest and stole $150. His dispatcher had called the police, but it probably wouldn't help. "Does this happen often?" I asked. "Oh no," he replied. "It's the first time in three weeks."

Another taxi driver, the next day, was Lebanese and wore expensive Italian sunglasses. He rolled down his window to hail every cab and most of the cars we passed. Before Iqaluit he lived in Brooklyn, not far from me, working for his uncle in a downtown counterfeit goods shop. When the city cracked down, a relative said he could make good money here, and so he was; but after six months he was ready to leave. He recounted how a colleague's hair was set on fire by a passenger in the back seat.

My next cabbie was a large man who ignored several attempts at smalltalk before asking, in a good ol' boy southern accent, where I was from. "New York City," I said, to which he replied, "God-damn!" He'd gone there often, he said, while driving a truck in Rhode Island. "I worked for the Chinese," he said. "We were thieves." Exactly what he stole wasn't clear, as his details came in a jumble, but he managed to convey a distaste for rural Illinois.

The last cabbie was an old man with a French accent who waited outside NorthMart, a sprawling department store where arm-long arctic char rest beside fish sticks and fox skins hang above crochet materials. I shared the cab with an Inuit teenager and his younger brother. Cab sharing is common in Iqaluit. A flat six dollars takes you anywhere in town, with the proviso that cabs will pick up new passengers while already en route.

Destinations are designated by number — I stayed at house 2625, and had visited building 208 that day. Cabbies memorize the layout, which signifies the order of housing construction and is broken several times between adjacent but asynchronously erected neighborhoods. The teenager and his brother lived at house 2465. Beside it was house 460. This particular juncture was the bane of new drivers, said the cabbie.

I asked how long drivers tended to stay, mentioning the robbery and the hair-torching. He laughed. "I came here 23 years ago," he said. "I was just going to stay for a few weeks."

Image: From the Iqaluit set.

A Winter Ritual by Brandon

One of the first things I did with a digital camera was photograph ice: specifically, ice that forms on forest pools and is left behind as they empty, as thin and brittle and rich as old parchment.

This is an explorative and appreciative rather than creative act. The ice is common, but largely hidden: without a camera’s lens, I would be aware of it dimly, from a distance. Certainly I would be less apt to lie on a forest floor and lose myself in a liberating thoughtlessness of contemplation. I am, however, still half-aware as I shoot. The tiny camera-screen versions give a sense of geometries and light; only later, on a computer’s screen, do I fully see what I saw.

The patterns in the ice -- the geological fractals and topographical curves, the refractions of light, especially when the sun is low and gold -- are beautiful to me. They also appear inexplicable as products of the gradual process that is freezing; instead they seem caught in mid-air, mid-transformation, mid-dynamo.

From a different perspective, perhaps, they are. Time flows at many speeds and many scales. And through these patches of ice, which last for a few weeks or even days, and are so delicate as to snap from the stresses of a footfall yards away, one can glimpse a different current of time than our own. From within that current our own time’s passage may seem so rapid as to render our world fleeting and unnoticed, like the ice.

This has now become a winter ritual, albeit a short one: my fingertips are usually numb after a half-hour or so. I go through the pictures while lying on the couch, hot tea in hand, picking a few of the best compositions and adjusting their colors to match those in my mind’s eye. With time I’ve found myself needing to do this less, though better cameras are largely to credit. Sometimes I’ll set an image as my computer desktop background; most, though, I don’t look at again. A momentary dip into that other time is plenty. If I need to find it again, I need only a cold snap and a puddle.

Image: From this set

Swallows by Brandon

For the last several months I've had on my tongue's tip a quote about the importance of preserving mystery, and the poverty of its absence. To wit: on a summer evening, when swallows pluck insects from a pond's surface, their downwards trajectories display minimalist exactitudes that might have been calculated by a missile interception system. As they rise, however, they put on shows of aerial whimsy, tumbling and cavorting in mid-air like kids in a pickup game of hockey.

It's impossible to watch this and not imagine that the swallows are, quite simply, having fun. And to translate their aerial curlicues into some slight reproductive benefit somehow cheapens this graceful, beautiful display; so does the attempt to define any fun experienced by the swallows as a subjectivity produced to magnify that reproductive benefit, or some accidental side effect thereof, rather than a property intrinsic to leaping and spinning and dancing.

Of course, such utilitarian explanations to the mystery of evening swallow flights may well be true. But I would prefer to neither know the answer nor press the question with techniques suited for a laboratory rather than a raft. This is, I suppose, a form of ignorance; but mystery is not merely the absence of an answer, but the possibility of many.

Image: Steve Brace

Objectivity, Partisanship, Journalism, Obama by Brandon

As a science journalist who often covers politics, I feel obligated to disclose that I volunteered last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio for the campaign to elect Barack Obama.

This may make some readers uncomfortable. Until the first door opened it made me uncomfortable as well; not because I believed my ability to fairly cover science policy in the future would be compromised, nor even because I feared that the perceived conflict of interest would turn readers skeptical or editors wary, but because it ran counter to my fundamental identity as a journalist — someone who doesn't throw his lot in with a party or movement, much less a charismatic individual, but stands aside, loyal to the pursuit of truth. An advocate, not a partisan.

I was also discomfited by the rhetoric surrounding the volunteer experience, the descriptions of meaningfulness and fulfillment in tones verging on religious. Whether or not I am whole is, perhaps, a question yet to be concluded, but I do not turn to political participation to answer it.

But at the level where I feel certain of the difference between fact and opinion, I believed that Barack Obama needed to win this election in order for America to have a chance of reversing its decline.* So I went to Cleveland and wore an Obama button and knocked on doors and reminded people to vote. It felt good.

It was instructive, too: in large parts of the neighborhood to which I was assigned, perhaps one house in eight was boarded and abandoned, and most of the rest were slowly, obviously falling apart, residents no longer able to replace broken doors or shattered windows. More restaurants were shuttered than were open; only a few convenience stores were still in business. The area seemed to have once been handsome; the homes were well-built, lawns wide and streets tree-lined. This wasn't merely poverty. It was hopelessness embodied.

I have been in places far poorer, but the sheer, pervasive air of decline was something new. For all the economic collapse has affected me, constricting and making uncertain and provisional my hopes and dreams, its threat has been one of stasis rather than fall. But this neighborhood, which by all accounts is unexceptional in the once-great eastern industrial cities and in the towns between America's seaboards, seemed ready to vanish, to fall back into the earth. The fate of its residents would not be good.

They knew this. And they believed that Barack Obama would save them. I was unprepared for that, and I feared for their eventual disappointment, but the sincerity of their belief was humbling. It wasn't the sort of support to which I am accustomed — the outrage of well-educated liberals, grounded in principle rather than immediacy, able to contemplate a retreat to Canada if McCain won or a change in profession if the economy worsens. Not that such outrage, or such plans, are invalid; they are, after all, my own. But these people had nowhere to go, and they believed in what Barack Obama represented.

Whether their belief is well-placed can be debated, but its existence cannot. And its sheer, visceral realness is meaningful in itself. There is something incredible about inspiration, about hope . That Obama can provide it is significant, is a force for good, in a way I didn't previously comprehend. Hope started to grow in me, as well: not because Obama is perfect or wise, or his platform guaranteed of success, but because his presidency makes it possible to conceive, for a moment at least, of change.

Had John McCain won, or had Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the Democratic primary and then taken the presidency, nobody would have danced in the streets. Dance we did, in cities across the country, in Brooklyn where I watched the results and poured into the streets with everyone else, hugging strangers and screaming and floating for a few hours on a feeling so uncommon now that I'd forgotten it: possibility.

Tuesday night was one of the most beautiful nights of my life, and I'll never forget it.

So what does this mean for me as a journalist, or for someone who sees an article of mine on the science policies of the Obama administration? In my defense I submit only that it's better to take a side openly than in secret; and that, in the end, I was motivated not by a desire to win but by a dream of what our society could and should be.** That dream now demands a return to my role as a journalist, loyal first and foremost to moral principle and the pursuit of truth. I'll cover Obama with the same rigor and skepticism as I did the Bush administration, if not more. His promises, and the people to whom he made them, deserve no less.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I voted in Maine, and selected a Republican, Susan Collins, as my Senator; and for offices in which I didn't know the nominees, wrote in myself or my friends.

* The consequences of climate change — agricultural and hydrological disruption, the resulting disease and dislocation and economic turmoil — are arguably the greatest challenges now facing the nation; overcoming them will require the transformation of our energy infrastructure and economy. That in turn will require a radical departure from what has been the political status quo; so will the management of a health care system that will soon devour as much federal money as the military.

Perhaps John McCain would have been able to lead the country on such a radical path, but I was not certain. Moreover, I was completely unconvinced that he could take the steps necessary to repair an economy wrecked by greed and the deregulation of corporate finance — a deregulation in which both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit, but McCain long cheered. And the willingness of McCain to put a wholly unqualified Sarah Palin in line to inherit the country's command purely for the sake of obtaining power erased any faith I had in his  clarity of judgment.

** I'm aware that pure objectivity is, to some, a journalistic ideal. Non-partisanship is not, however, the same thing as objectivity. To quote Joan Didion's "Insider Baseball ":

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about "the democratic process," or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. "I didn't realize you were a political junkie," Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

I watched the first and third Presidential debates on CNN. After each one, the network cut to a panel of analysts, of whom many had previously worked for the Democrat or Republican party, who judged what we had just seen purely in terms of framing and performance. That sort of ostensibly evenhanded coverage, which subjectively favors a political process in which any statement of policy, belief or fact is rendered immediately superfluous, is a betrayal of democracy and the country; it is far more destructive than the worst and most cynical partisanship; and now that the election is over, I can only hope that CNN's political desk and producers move on to more socially valuable tasks, such as foreclosing on the elderly or denying medical comfort to the terminally ill.