I've always tried to keep this site separate from my work, but there's an exception to every rule.
Right now I'm working on a story about White Nose Syndrome, a disease that's killing cave-dwelling American bats at a pace unprecedented in known animal history. The work will be published on Wired and is being produced through Spot.us, a service that allows citizens to directly support journalism they care about -- journalism that is, sadly, dwindling in a time of free content and pageview-driven metrics and general economic catastrophe.
If you've happened to stumble across my site, I invite you to read my pitch on Spot.us and consider donating. If money's tight, you don't even need to give from your pocket; right now you can earn money for the story just by taking a poll. Your help will make this story possible.
Image: A northern long-eared bat.
For most of the year, ice and snow cover the tundra. A couple feet below the surface, soil is frozen year-round; only lichen and shallow-rooted plants grow, and summer is brief. To make up for lost time, vegetation blooms as if on fire.
Photographs from a recent trip to Iqaluit.
"The water," said John Waldman, "varies between green and shockingly green."
Perched on a thin strip of grass between a road and the water's edge, he stared intently at the surface. On a postcard fall noon it was the color of fresh spinach, the algae and silt so thick that the sun was swallowed just a few inches into the murk.
"Minnows," he said, pointing to a dappling of translucent silver-pink fish several feet from sure. "It's salty, with a sky-high pH, but it's rich and full of life nonetheless." We stood at at the mouth of a short creek between two bodies of water that elsewhere would be called ponds, but in New York City they are called Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, and are faintly miraculous. Like so much of the estuary now entombed beneath the world's eleventh-largest city, it was once a tidal marsh, and still receives the tide. This explained the salinity. The pH — nine, to be exact, same as baking soda — came from coal ash, which residents piled by the creek when Queens was still country. Builders used the ash to line the lakebeds, and it prevents the water from spreading back into the silt.
Waldman, a biology professor at nearby Queens College, hoped the minnows would attract a snakehead. The voracious intruder was found this spring in Willow Lake, likely introduced by an owner exasperated with its boundless appetite, and earlier this fall, Waldman saw a juvenile — evidence that they might have spawned.
"It's still not clear whether they are highly successful," he said. As for whether the snakeheads will eat everything in sight, fulfilling the fearsome though overstated reputations — Snakehead!! — spread by toothy tabloid covers three summers ago, when the air-breathing Asian natives were discovered in Maryland, nobody knows. "Its possible they'll overshoot the food source before reaching some sort of equilibrium," said Waldman.
Overshooting the food source, of course, is a technical way of saying, eat everything in the lakes. Worse yet, a breeding population of snakeheads would threaten any other waters to which misguided bucket-carriers could haul them. The Department of Environmental Conservation has taken control of the situation, but Waldman, who worked for twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation before taking his professorship, still comes by to look. He is a fish junky, a city boy who spent his life exploring, and later chronicling the history of, the waters around New York City — waters that, he and others discovered, are full of life, a life that is surprisingly resilient, clinging to and even thriving in niches shaped by human destruction.
Waldman crossed the street to look for snakeheads on the other side, easily vaulting a concrete divider. At fifty he is still fit and trim, with sharp blue eyes, an angler's grip and a chin of stubble that matches the white of his hair. He wore a brown jacket — herringbone, appropriately — and loose slacks, somewhat resembling the Victorian gentleman who, in a framed drawing on his office wall, carries with aplomb a man-sized fish on a stick over his back.
"The drive for life is really intense. There's an awful lot of contamination in this world," he said, speaking for a moment of life above the water as well. "They may not produce so many eggs as in a pristine environment, or grow as well, but there's still a living to be made here."
Waldman continued up the creek. The leaves had already turned, and many of the fallen had yet to lose their color; thickets of head-high phragmites lined the water's margins with green stalks and loose flaxen heads that waved back the sun's gold. We passed beneath the interleafing of the Van Wyck Highway and the Long Island Expressway, their supporting concrete columns aged by weather and almost as wide around as some of the trees that once lived in the surrounding valleys.
The water's surface vibrated from cars passing above and was boiled by thick schools of minnows that surfaced in flight from our footsteps. A chemical skein floated with lazy iridescence beside a drainage inflow where we next stopped. Littering the water was a collection of trash straight from central staging: milk crates, tires, shopping carts.
"Shopping carts are one of the major features of urban aquatic environments. Another one is the spare tire," Waldman said. Beside one bridge, he said, it is possible to walk across the water on the trash collected beneath it. "Tumbleweed," he said, pointing to a wind-blown plastic bag.
We saw no snakeheads there, or farther along at the locks that hold the lakes in. Nor did we see any other fish, though the water teems with them — sunfish, white perch, carp, catfish, the earlier-seen minnows, which are technically named killifish, and American eels, which despite their name breed in the Sargasso Sea, not far from the West Indies. These fish have survived, even thrived, amidst some of the worst pollution in the world, but now face eradication from the latest offhand transformation.
The snakehead, of course, just a few generations removed from some brackish backwater in northern China, is an unwitting victim in the whole affair, arbitrarily moved by the fate of globalization and human nature. Singling it out as an alien in an already-altered ecological balance could seem unfair — but shaping the development of nature is a power that, for better or worse, people exercise simply by existing.
"The snakehead is a gritty fish, with great survival instincts. It's hard to dislike it," John said on the walk back to the car. "But it just doesn't belong here."
Image: A satellite photograph of Meadow and Willow Lakes.
I wrote this almost five years ago (!) in school, as part of a profile on Waldman that I never did manage to get published. Which is a shame, because John is a gracious and fascinating person, whose work on New York City's aquatic ecology deserves much attention.
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by a complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge, seeing thereby a feather magnified, the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man."
Photos from the Birds Flickr set.
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.
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.