hidden lessons of science club

My first attendance at the Crestview Elementary 5th grade science club included the following interaction:
Accuser: He just said a bad word.
Me: Who?
Accuser (pointing): He did. He just said (in Spanish) “Hijo de #£¥%€@&”.
Accused: Well he just said it too.

Oh this is going to be so amazing! Thank you NSF!

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focal planes of beauty

​The phone call from my Mom last Thursday was disturbing at the very least. My sister, who is six months pregnant, was in the emergency room. Dehydration and a 102 degree fever for three days finally pushed the intensive care unit nurse into checking herself in. Between my mom’s sobs, I gathered that a bacterial infection was to blame. I hung tough while she went on about my sister’s health and the development of the fetus. When the conversation was over, and I was off the phone, I cried as hard as I have for many months. As the strength of the fear subsided, I actually managed a smile at the paradox of working on a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology.

​I love studying ecology and the way organisms interact and survive within certain environments. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that virtually anything can be considered a habitable environment; a creek running through pine forests, an alpine mountain top, a sandy desert, the human liver, a piece of paper, or a computer keyboard (Seriously!). Each of these, and many more, serve as a place where some sort of organism can live and, at times, thrive. So long as the vital components of persistence: water, food, air, (depending on the organism), are available, an organism should continue to live in a habitat for which it is adapted.

​What had produced the smile at the end of my crying session the other day, was the ability of humans to put the world in black and white contexts when it comes to “beauty” in the natural world. Our definitions of “the natural world” and “beauty” are species centric. We categorize certain types of nature and beauty as good and anything outside that definition as bad. In so doing we fail to see the elegant bridge to the world around us. We miss the vast gray area that really links all of us together via evolution and as inhabitants on the planet. The fact is that the evolution and ecology of disease is no less stunning than that for the polar bear, the shark, the peacock, the prickly pear, the scorpion, the army ant, the orchid and close to two million other named species.

​Malaria, ring worm (a fungus), and Salmonella (the bacteria my sister was eventually determined to have) would probably not fall on most people’s top 1000 list of charismatic organisms. Yet the same forces that guided evolution of the species we find so cute and majestic have guided the evolution of the bacteria, fungus and viruses that make us sick and at times kill us. The same mechanisms behind the struggle for survival and adjusting to competitive forces have contributed to the strength and persistence of these microorganisms. Evolution was never proposed to just produce species that humans find aesthetically pleasing. This is what we so easily forget.

​So next time you get the flu, catch a cold, or have some sort of intestinal “issue”, go ahead and blame the litter critters that caused it. But do your best to not take it personally, and give the forces behind speciation a thumbs up. Because without those evolutionary forces there would be a lot of other beauty we would never see.

new domains

Hello everyone.

A quick note to let you know there are two new ways to link to eco.log.y. http://www.jeffmcclenahan.com and http://www.ecolog-y.com are now active. http://www.jeffmcclenahan.wordpress.com also still works.

Also, for those blogging from their iPads, this post was generated on the WordPress app. It is a streamlined version of being able to post and check site stats.

Thank you for all the support and wonderful comments.

the personal side of meristems

I am prefacing this post with a warning. This one comes from deep in my heart and is personal. It is written behind a pint of good IPA and the mist of tears. We all go through transitions. This Spring of 2012 is one of those for me. The other side is sunny, so I thought I would share.

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I remember the phone call I received in December of 1981 as if it were yesterday. (Cliche I know, but accurate.) The caller was my grandmother; the toughest women, nay person, I have ever known. She was one of those individuals that is always right, even when wrong. With time, she was always proven correct. Her artistry lay in the ability to comfort you as she was telling you the truth of your errors. Her voice on this particular night was no less stoic than ever. It did not betray the message she was about to deliver.

You see, it is Spring here in the Rockies. And as the calendar dates associated with the end of the year always fan the embers of reminiscing, so to does the change in seasons from Winter to Spring. One of the natural catalysts of this eruption of memories are meristems; the new buds and growth that emerge at the end of branches and roots and along the branching points of plants. I suppose what gets me most is the vulnerability pushing through the tough exterior.

The conversation I had with Grandma on that December night was about death, specifically hers. After years of withstanding the life restricting pain of lupus she had decided to call it quits. This woman, who had for many years drilled into me that anything was possible, whose lessons on life and living still reverberate, whose tough exterior at times still bolster me when I am in pain, was throwing in the towel and finally admitting she could not handle it anymore. And I have always respected her choice. I received a call the following morning, while sitting in 10th grade Spanish class, that she had died peacefully. (I would later learn she had overdosed on morphine.) She was 52 years old.

Meristems are specialized cells located at the end of plant roots, at branching points and at the ends of branches. During the winter these cells lay dormant. The abiotic cues of longer days (read more energy providing sunlight) and warmer average daily temperatures kick the reproduction of these cells into action. The result is new buds that will turn into new leaves or bigger root systems to absorb more water. Over the course of a few weeks these new leaves and root systems become the growth required for plant survival.

The leaves are where photosynthesis takes place. This process converts light energy into chemical energy (in the form of sugars). Thus, out of the tough protective structures of bark and wood comes the life capturing, and fragile structure necessary for persistence.

The following year has been one of challenges and rewards. The challenging side has been associated with developing a durable and tough exterior (not my strength). Graduate school, relationships, and self-doubt have fostered times of uncomfortable self-assessment and the desire to alter certain patterns. The reward side has been the results of putting in the effort at listening to myself and the willingness to learn about the areas of needed internal growth. The concrete products of this effort are the blog that you are reading, a National Science Foundation teaching fellowship, a trip to explore my life-long desire to learn to surf, and the confidence to turn up the heat on a few other small projects that have been sitting on back burners. Yet, as this first week of April slides into its weekend, I am realizing that the effort at being constantly strong has been depleted, and as my grandmother did so many years ago, I am throwing in the towel on maintaining that exterior and instead I am letting the soft newness dominate.

Spring has penetrated and is stoking the fires of emergence. I am welcoming the exposure of a new vulnerability. The bark is still there to prevent accidental desiccation and to lend support but the predominant color is of new leaves and energy absorbing chlorophyl. And while I occasionally have to fend off curious and hungry squirrels, the emergence is beginning to expand and dominate. The required nutrients are there for the taking.

embracing waves

I just returned from Sayulita, Mexico; my first official surfing trip. “Official” means I wanted to take a surfing lesson then have a few days to practice what I had been taught. I accomplished both, and so much more.

My first surfing lesson happened in February of 2011. It was a birthday present to myself after completing my fieldwork in Australia. After decades of desire, I finally jumped in. I met my instructor Ryan on a warm Sydney afternoon at the Manly Beach ferry terminal. A short drive later and we were in a small cove replete with small waves, and completely alone in the water. Already I was hooked.

Over the next two hours I would laugh as hard as I had for many months, ingest more salt water than I had in many years, and feel like a kid as never before. And yes, I managed to “get up” a handful of times. I did not once feel the rush of being engulfed in a gnarly barrel. As I think back, I did not even see any of the waves I rode. But ride a few I did. And sit I did too.

What ultimately set the hooks of surfing into my soul were the times between rides. The watching swells and waves while sitting on a long board, and wondering if I really did look like prey to a shark. The peacefulness of just sitting there embedded itself deep and fast. My recent experience in Mexico added a layer to this.

My first day in Sayulita was spent on a long, soft and wide surfboard. Save for a few miscues, I managed to get up every time I tried. By the end of the lesson, while riding a wave, I felt sufficiently cocky to actually walk to the nose of the board, hang five (ten seemed risky), and then return to the prescribed neophyte’s position. The instructors laughed and hinted at the high likelihood of a Geritol sponsorship. I was beside myself with joy.

The next two days were spent testing out shorter soft boards (downsizing from 9′ to 8′), working on my foot placement after popping up from the prone position required to paddle, and becoming more adept at sitting stably on the board and waiting for waves. By days four and five, and with the help of a 70-something Mexican surf guru, I was beginning to master the balance of sitting and turning the nose toward shore when a desired wave approached. To my great pleasure, as I became more adept at sitting quietly, my vision of the subtle changes in the ocean and incoming waves became more focused. (Yep, there is a huge metaphor there. Really the backbone of this post. I will let y’all define that as you like.)

By day six I had graduated to a full hard board, with a waxed top and all, and was riding the biggest waves of the week. (Still shorter than your average sized SUV but hey, bigger than the first day.) And I was still enjoying the time in between waves, watching the undulations, thinking of friends, smelling the surf and smiling at all of us attempting something new.

On the final day in Sayulita, as I reached my physical limit, I chose a swell I was sure would be the defining moment of my surfing career. I paddled as if my life depended on it. I had misjudged. The wave was building slower than I had expected and instead of starting to crest at the expected time, it merely rolled gently under me and broke high on shore. As it passed under my flailing arms I sat up, a huge smile on my face. No frustration. Just so much joy and comfort in knowing I had not gotten it right and that there was still so much to practice. I summoned a bit more energy, turned myself away from shore, and paddled back out refreshed and awake, and still with the biggest smile on my face.

new categories/more possibilities

I have created three new categories for my blog posts. The idea is to better serve the whims of blogging that are linked to writer’s block and/or the desire to write about something other than the expressed goal of eco.log.y. This is purely self-serving. Gosh, it feels good.

The posts associated with the overall theme of eco.log.y will be classified under “eco.log”. Posts that are observations, video links, poems, etc. will now come under the “.log” category. Finally, and to celebrate my being awarded an NSF teaching fellowship, I have created the “.y” category. The fellowship involves teaching math and science to 5th graders in the Boulder Valley School District. Posts in this category will reflect my observations and experiences as part of this amazing program.

As always, thank you for reading.