Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter 4: Measures

      It is an old trick of measurement: the more precise the ruler, the longer something becomes. The idea seems improbable. How can something actually get longer simply by changing the tool you use to measure it? Consider the Florida coastline. It is officially 1,200 miles long. The ruler used for that official measurement might only measure in increments of half miles. Unable to bend along the coastline, it ‘averages over’ coastal features. The half-mile ruler shoots straight across a cove and cuts across small peninsulas. If you zoom in and run a ruler with increments of 1/10th of a mile into every cove and bay, the resulting measurement is much longer. Now, you are measuring into every cove and around every peninsula. You have ‘found’ length because you are looking closer.

      Run an even more precise ruler around every rock along the coast, and the result of the measurement is still longer. An even more precise ruler can measure along every grain of sand. On and on this goes until finally you are looking at an imaginary border running through an expanse of atoms. Your measurement approaches infinity.

      Strangely, when you reach the atomic level of detail, you realize that atoms are almost all vacant space. The traditional elementary school model of an atom vastly overestimates the size of the nucleus. If you expanded an actual atom to the size of a hand-held model, the nucleus would still be far too small to see. The space between the nucleus and the electron shell comprises most of the volume. An inconceivably small part of an atom’s volume is actually material. Only a millionth of a billionth of an atom has mass. That number is astonishing. Think of that. A millionth of a billionth! There isn’t even a common metaphor to use that would illustrate how tiny that is in comparison to the entire atom. The vast majority of volume is emptiness, existing as a field of charge. The closer you look, the less material there is to see. The solid world around us is illusory.

      On top of that, the atoms in your finger tip never really come in contact with the atoms of whatever object you are trying to touch. The like-charges of the electron shells in each atom repel each other. As long as the atom remains intact, the matter from one atom will never touch the matter of another. The force pushing two atoms toward each other can never overcome the repelling magnetic force that keeps them apart. They never get closer than one angstrom.  In other words, you aren’t really standing on the ground; you are levitating at the height of one angstrom. You aren’t really holding this book; it is floating in-between your fingers at a distance of one angstrom. For that matter, one atom in your finger isn’t really touching the finger atom next to it.

      All of our edges approach infinity and nothingness at the same time. Your body is only one millionth of a billionth there. But if you measure it, it seems to extend forever. Your body is a coastline. You have 2 meters of DNA in every single cell and anywhere from 10 to 100 trillion cells in your body. Just in DNA, your body’s length is extraordinary. You, personally, have at least 5 million Florida coastlines of DNA. So what are you? Infinite or almost nothing?

      This morning’s news rang with word of an earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico. Its rumble flowed across Central Florida like a ripple in water. I hadn’t noticed the shaking and feel cheated. Did it happen when I stumbled out of bed? Was I too intently lost inside the water lilies? An earthquake in Florida! Hummel figurines all over Orlando are quivering in fear inside their curio cabinets. The newscast shows a family photo that fell from a retiree’s wall in Winter Springs. Hurricane, fire, hurricane, tornado, hurricane, fire. This is the normal measure of our natural disasters. Even a tsunami seems appropriately expected as we wait for the Canary Islands to explode and send its deadly vibration crashing over us. But earthquakes?  Apparently, there is a retired faultline out there under the dolphin-blue waters. Once in a great while, it likes to remind us of our place in the order of things.

      Our stability on this planet is tenuous at best. Below us, the crust of the Earth is floating on a turbulent sphere of searing hot viscosity. The crust is only 25 miles thick, proportionate to the skin on an apple. The crust floats, slides, and collides on top of the molten interior mantle, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. On the looks of it, it is surprising that earthquakes aren’t an everyday event. We should be expecting it. As it is, two quakes measuring 2.0 on the Richter Scale or higher occur everyday on the Earth.

      Above us, the atmosphere is a wisp protecting us from the cold vacuum of space. It is 120 miles thick, but the livable portion is only a few miles thick. Most of it is as antagonistic to life as outer space. There is 25 million tons of air sitting on every square mile of earth. About one ton of air is resting on your head and shoulders right now as you read this.  Nevertheless, the atmosphere is comparable to a coat of shellac on a desk globe. Any cosmic sneeze might blow it away.

      We live in the thin slick between the wisp and the apple skin. We barely venture outside of our green, greasy smear. We haven’t yet drilled into the mantle and only an elite few have ventured beyond the atmosphere. We can’t even climb to the top of our tallest mountains without an oxygen tank. We have to take our heavy atmosphere with us. Our entire dramatic lives are conducted inside a coating of warm, wet slime. Like a mildew on the wall. Like a drop between the slide and the slip.

      I hover inside my angstrom bubble in the corner of the acre. This is the third little yellowthroat I’ve found dead this week. A sign. West Nile. I have never noticed a yellowthroat alive but here is the third dead. First an earthquake and now this. The air seems heavier. The bird’s colors and design are brightly striking. A yellow bib boldly topped with a black mask, a silver streak. Tiny, feathered thing. Almost nothing. Almost infinite.

      The West Nile virus loves the mixed flock. Tiny birds fly in from all corners of the country. They meet, they preen their feathers, they exchange diseases.  Since reaching these shores in 1999, the virus has blossomed across the entire United States. Five hundred dead people. Uncountable numbers of dead birds. Songbirds are already at risk due to habitat loss.  I thought viruses were supposed to attack booming populations, not dwindling populations. Songbirds dwindle. Habitats dwindle. Confidence dwindles. I touch it with the toe of my sneaker and then think, “this is a mistake.”  The consequences, the implications, the quantifications are swirling in my head.

      So what are we? Infinite or almost nothing?

Isn’t that the central question argued for and assumed by all of human thought? Is our precipitous hold on the planet a sheer material coincidence or is it so improbable that it must have been created just for us? I take a deep breath. Every ten breaths, a pound of air enters my lungs. A pound of wispy atmosphere. Every breath contains 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 1% Argon. Traces, vapors, spores, dust, pollen, viruses. Every breath, a Florida coastline.

Please note that the poems and narratives on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Yellowjackets: A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa


By Yusef Komunyakaa

When the plowblade struck
An old stump hiding under
The soil like a beggar's
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up
& Mister Jackson left the plow
Wedged like a whaler's harpoon.
The horse was midnight
Against dusk, tethered to somebody's
Pocketwatch. He shivered, but not
The way women shook their heads
Before mirrors at the five
& dime--a deeper connection
To the low field's evening star.
He stood there, in tracechains,
Lathered in froth, just
Stopped by a great, goofy
Calmness. He whinnied
Once, & then the whole
Beautiful, blue-black sky
Fell on his back.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Iridescense in the Florida Scrub

The Ivory Marginated Beetle (Anomala marginata) showed up at the house recently. Although this little beetle is quite common throughout the Eastern US, most people never notice them. If they do see one, it is often mistaken for a Phyllophaga, the super common and super brown May beetles.  But look closer. Once you notice the brilliant iridescence on every surface, they are easy to spot even in a bucket of May beetles. The ivory-colored bands on their legs and edging along the thorax stands out against the shimmering green and gold iridescence. The light dances across its surface as the beetle walks across your palm. It is giving my ring a run for its money. Who can resist that cute face?  This is actually a Ruteline scarab (as opposed to a Phyllophaga). Rutelines are among the most beautiful and sought-after beetles. In many traditional cultures, the wing-covers of Rutelines are used for the original art nouveau jewelry.

Science has only recently understood how insects create these spectacular colors. Very fine, transparent chitin layers of varying thickness manipulate the returning wavelengths of light, depending on what angle you are viewing the beetle. All of this is created without the use of any pigments. Any combination of visible light is possible: violet, orange, blue, silver, copper. If you can imagine it, a beetle somewhere has mastered it.

Of course, now that we know how the beetle light-show works, science is busy finding practical applications. The obvious includes paints and architectural surfaces. But this technology may also result in faster computers through optical circuits and chips.

Here are just a few iridescent beetles that can be found in the Florida scrub:

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Moustached Tiger Beetle (Cicindela hirtilabris)   This is the coolest beetle in the scrub. More on this one in a later post. My driveway might be the best place in the world to find them.  Why am I showing this beetle on a page about iridescence? Check out my close-up photographs that reveal the moustached tiger beetle's colorful secret!

Green June Beetle (Cotinis nitida)

Fiery Searcher Beetle (Calosoma scrutator)

Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex) These guys love bear poop.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter 3: Nobody's Dog

Nobody’s Dog

      It had never really sunk in with me that we live in a peculiar place not of for the tastes of most people. It always seemed logical to me that everyone actually wants to live in the country and it was only by misfortune and the necessity of nearby work that most people confined themselves to the cities. The ease of getting to a grocery store and theater seemed a bad trade-off for the street lights, the noise, the neighbors at arm’s reach, the tiny sterile plot of grass, and the dearth of life. But of course, like many things, I had it all wrong.

      I learned that lesson one day while walking down the road to the mailbox about a mile away. The ground was covered with blooming thistle, scrub buttercups, and waving garberia. The ponies leapt in their paddocks. The sun was vibrant and withering. The buzzards soared high overhead. The towhee whistled. Scrub jays tussled in the brush. To the west runs a long sandy road that passes through Blackwater Swamp. When it hasn’t rained too much, this road is the shortcut to Paisley and Altoona. I was surprised to see a big new truck pulling out of the dirt road towing the finest horse trailer I have ever seen. An air conditioner hummed on top of the trailer. The windows were tinted and the edges where chromed. A custom paint job covered the sides. The air-brushed painting showed rolling hills, live oaks, and stampeding horses. The blurry sky shone with every color of the rainbow. A frog hung in mid-air, legs outstretched behind him, as he launched over a lily pad. It was the very image of our collective understanding of the word pastoral.

      The horseman leapt out of the driver’s seat holding a fistful of maps and a wild look in his eye. No sooner had said hello when his angry wife jumped out screaming at me at the top of her lungs, “Where in the Hell do you people live out here?” It was an accidentally brilliant combination of “Where in the Hell is this” and “Why in Hell do you people live out here?”  She had been crying. Her face was red and her make-up ran down her cheeks. She cursed at me some more. She was so distraught her sentences made little sense, although I think her intentions were clear. Unable to blame her husband for whatever predicament they were in, I was the lightning rod for her frustration.

      The horseman explained that they were on their way to a show and the online maps took them through the forest. They had spent hours slowly bumping along horrible dirt roads. Their prize horse was probably ill from the rough ride and their children were crying in the back. They owned a big horse breeding ranch up near Jacksonville. They hadn’t seen another person this whole time. They were all formally dressed for the afternoon’s events. I looked like I just crawled out of the hammock, all dirt and flip-flops. I smiled and explained that they weren’t very far off their mark. I couldn’t explain why the map company advised them to take the back roads, but if they just drove down this road for awhile and took a right, they would come to the highway they were looking for (just past a great vegetable stand) and arrive at their show in 20 minutes or so. The expression of panic erased from their faces. They became polite again, and appreciative. It was if civilization had been returned to them and I was some sort of redneck Prometheus. They thanked me and drove off spitting dust out behind them.

      Where the Hell do I live, anyway?

      I had just watched a bad movie about some adventurous college students driving a remote road into the hills thinking it was a shortcut to a party. During the next hour they were systematically hunted down, flayed, and cannibalized by mutated country folk that inbred their way into the 21st century. It is a mythic, high stakes cultural battle between the air-brushed pastoral as portrayed on the horse trailer, and the backward land of mutant cannibals as portrayed in countless movies. Either way, the country is a special place ruled by its own secret set of laws that do not apply to city dwellers.

      Maybe that is why people drop their unwanted dogs off out here. They drive out in vans and trucks, pulling over to the side of the road until they are sure no one is watching. Their doors swing open and the dogs are pushed out. In the country, their shepherds run free and happy through the fields.  Their poodles can bark all day and bother no one. Their terriers can flush out the cotton rats and dig for pocket gophers with no punishment for destroying lawns or flower beds. The country welcomes home their lost wolves. Not a week goes by where I don’t see another new dog or two roaming gleefully through the scrub.

      One morning a golden mutt was galloping along the roadside toward the sun, ears flopping with every stride, too much loose skin for lips, a tail raised high over his head. His eyes were brimming with optimism and joy. Those dogs suddenly-alone will not believe the truth. Surely there had been a mistake. Surely, he was forgotten for just a second. Soon, around the corner or just up ahead, a truck will pull over and he’ll hear his name ring out with relief. I slowed my car and called to him. “Come here Boy!” He didn’t lose a step. I whistled. A gob of drool trailed out behind him. He didn’t even turn his head, so assuredly he ran forth. I paused and considered the situation. Cars sped by on their way to work. I looked at my clock. He kept running. I wish I could propel so completely, so honestly into my own disasters. For a mile I poked along beside him and he never gave any sign that I even existed. I thought about pulling over and getting out, but I had appointments that seemed important at the time. I eased my foot deeper onto the accelerator.

      An old relative of mine, Edward Rowe Snow, used to fly a plane out over the rugged islands along the coast of Maine. He was airlifting mail, food, and gifts to the lighthouse keepers who lived on the remote rocky knobs, surf-pounded islands, and inaccessible cliffs. Some of the keepers had families out there with them, or wives. But most of them lived alone with only my great uncle’s airdrops to sustain them. Having no distractions, they were bare lives laid bare. Only the artifice of work, of polishing enormous Fresnel lenses and whitewashing clapboards, kept them moored to humanity. Often, that wasn’t enough. They lost all courtesy and patience. They lost the desire to speak and groom. As it was, Snow would often drop out of the misty clouds to find a man dangling limp from the upper rail, or not there at all.

      For years, the boats pass anonymously by. You watch the seals on the rocks below. How they depart in the morning with a shout. How the pups suckle. How they flop and yelp. You creep in until they accept you. You learn their words and prefer them. You eat only the raw fish bellies. You dream. You marry. Then, one sunrise, you swim.

      And they must send out a new body to polish glass and whitewash.

      Snow wrote books that told their stories because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. His stories were sanitized and romantic, but the progression was clear. Cut loose from society, the human consciousness loses its identity. It reaches out, twirls like a tendril, searches for a fast. This is the Stockholm syndrome. This is how cults happen. The cult of isolation. And cabin fever. The brain fascinates itself for awhile. But it isn’t enough. It attaches to any little thing. The brain changes color. It chameleons to its surroundings. Some people paint quaint pictures of cedar shingles, geraniums bursting red, and children running along clean lighthouse lawns. Some people kill themselves.

      This Florida scrub I live on is an island, as ancient as any island my great-uncle airlifted to. First, an island in the Pamlico Sea, now surrounded by swamps and rivers and pavement, the scrub is a cut-off scrap struggling to keep its identity in an antagonistic world. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described the scrub as a ‘vast wall, keeping out the timid and the alien. …The scrub, as a matter of fact, has defeated civilization.”  She told stories of its inhabitants because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Even though scrubs are small in acreage as wildernesses go, they feel like another planet. Scrub is a mental island. The Florida Keys are islands of relaxation and recreation. The scrub is an island of anguish.

      Those that live out here, out in the few scrubs that haven’t been plowed under and tamed, are at its mercy. It is greater than us and more powerful. It isolates us, even from each other. We must think like scrub to survive. We don’t have much choice. There is no life except the life of the deep root, the thick root, and that grown in the hot glowing sand. Foreigners drive through and panic. They see us in our hard scrabble lawns, picking through the dry grasses. They see our old cars. They see how wild the weeds grow. How the glass is hung on the trees and polished. How our fenced yards are filled with their old, barking dogs. And to us what feels perfectly natural and incredibly comforting, the crying in the trees, the screams coming from the tortoise holes, sends them hurtling down the highway turning up their air conditioners and stereos. We let the scorpion cross our foot. We say hello to the bear wandering through the yard. We bury the dead and deadly coral snake, its rings of fantastic red and yellow and black, in the vegetable garden. For every nutrient we can eke out, we eke out.

Please note that the poems and narratives on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Springtime in the Florida Scrub - The Bumelia Webworm

Is there any doubt that spring is full upon us? After enduring a slow-moving yet high-energy cold front the last couple of days that brought us five inches of rain, the Florida scrub around my house has exploded with tree frogs. The swallow tail kites have arrived from Mexico. There seem to be more nearby than previous years. Hopefully there will be babies to watch again this year. The turkeys are everywhere. Baby turtles are hiking their tiny-button bodies through the woods looking for ponds. Everything is new new new. Anyone who says that Florida doesn't have seasons has been spending too much time indoors.

This morning, I noticed something interesting hanging underneath a silk bay leaf.  The silk bay, or scrub bay, (Persea humilis) is a familiar tree around here. I say "tree" lightly because like most of the trees in the scrub, it tends to stay very short. I was surprised to find a thinly woven cocoon hanging off the leaf by a single thread. How peculiar that the cocoon looks more like screen mesh than the typical woolly cocoons that moths employ to metamorphosize from larva to adults. Even more peculiar is the cocoon appears to be woven from gold. The delicate strands sparkle and shine in the sun. Inside, the tiny pupa can be seen completely loose inside its golden purse.

This is the unique cocoon of the Bumelia webworm (Urodus parvula).

The adult won't win any beauty contests, but its cocoon belongs on the cover of a Chrysalides Photo Book that I wish someone would publish. The chrysalides have been ignored far too long in favor of their flighty adults!
Some Chrysalides for you to enjoy:

Variegated Fritillary

Cloudless Sulphur

Black Jezebel

Mechanitis butterfly

Everyone's favorite butterfly - Monarch

Happy spring!