nature’s groupie…

This post is a bit out of order, as a few are still germinating in the memory of my iPad. Regardless, I wanted to get it out in the open.

When I told friends of my trip to the Southwest, I often used the term vision quest. OK, poetic license is available to everyone right? The response was a little unexpected, though I guess not surprising given that I live in Boulder. “Dude, are you doing peyote?!” For the record, no. This morning, however, I did mix and consume an amazing concoction.

The brew consisted of an 8 mile run on the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon. The effects hit faster than that of DMT. Though I started in one place, I was transported to a point on the map that was other-worldly. It was a place where I was greeted with towering hoodoos, barren soil, Bristlecone pines placed at the perfect distance from each other. A place where my presence was noticed by Red-tail hawks and Steller’s Jays. Where the elevated voices of a young couple “discussing” was out of place. Where the embracing smile of septuagenarians was the only sugar needed to fend off the approach of fatigue.

It was a place where the energy of all four dimensions vibrated in unison. Where pulse and wind dance to the same frequency. It was a place where time condensed into a laser, cut through everything external, ricocheted off my spine and emerged as the simple vision of landscape. And damn was it a trip.

I will leave you with words better able to catch the essence of time stopping. This is from Paul Gruchow’s The Necessity of Empty Places. “…a moment when time stops, when centuries fall away, and you briefly glimpse the glory of forever.”


lest we forget…

The text I received this morning simply said “I love you Jeffrey. You are amazing.” First, how is it possible to have anything but a great day when you get to start with that level of acceptance? Second, it is Memorial Day weekend and I think we should focus on remembering and accepting ourselves.

Next week I will embark on a week-long semi-solo journey to places I know of and have never seen. Semi-solo because I will drive to Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah then over to Joshua Tree in California. I will do this by myself. I will trail run, mountain bike, cook and practice newly acquired guitar chords in the Southwest. My audience will be watchful stars and attentive geology. For a few days I will be on my own stage. After that I will drive to Malibu, California where a friend has offered to teach me how to stand up paddle board.

This trip is the result of reaching out and exposing myself to new friendships. The result of letting a two-hour phone conversation about a weekend surfing morph into a celebration of inner desire and passion. It is the combination of embracing established connections with blue sky and expansive landscape and seeking new experience. It is me remembering who I am and what puts a smile on my face. It is me remembering that sharing my unique combination of experience and world view is a unique experience for those who have chosen to be part of my life. And I can’t wait to learn about theirs.

I will share this trip with you. I beg you to do the same with me.

better living through chemistry

What does it mean to be part of a group? Who makes up your tribe? For most, I suspect these are implicit questions rarely considered. My research on social insects pulls such issues to the fore each time I sit at the microscope. And as I analyze the evidence before me, I can’t help but apply these questions to my own life.

I spent many years believing I was not social, (the reasons for which are still under investigation) and by extension did not define myself as part of a tribe. Instead, I opted for the identification with what the group represented; mountain biker, telemark skier, PhD student, resident of Boulder, Colorado. (Note: there is a difference between tribe and group.) Over time, I made a handful of close relationships. However, inclusion in a larger tribe was never pursued because of self-generated limitations and restrictive definitions.

Over the past few years many of those limitations and definitions have been acknowledged and altered. Lo and behold a social person, and one who is seeking and developing relationships within different tribes. The change has been in realizing that my mind was too involved in the decision process. Here I define mind as the keeper of history, joys, disappointments, injuries, successes, and (last but not least) teller of stories. This memory bank can help us survive. It can also function as a tool of isolation and exclusion. While humans have the ability to store tremendous amounts of knowledge and experience, we at times seem to struggle with the balance between wanting in and keeping out. As a contrast, social insects do not have to contend with such gray areas.

In order to be considered social an insect species must abide by the three following rules: 1) individuals of the same species cooperate in caring for the young, 2) there is a reproductive division of labor with sterile workers tending to reproductive individuals, and 3) there is an overlap of at least two generations capable of working in the colony. In many cases there is also a division of labor within a colony such that some workers forage and some workers defend nests or colonies.  These soldiers use pheromones or cuticular hydrocarbons to detect fellow nest mates. If your “smell” meets the criteria, you are in. If not, no entrance. The process is essentially a chemical reaction, either yes or no. It is this type of chemical reaction that needs to gain greater prominence in our decisions concerning who gets in and who is kept out. (You have made it this far. Do not stop reading now because I guarantee you will come to the wrong conclusion.)

I hear the collective gasp of “Jeff, of all people! Are you actually saying that we should be so black and white about who we include in our lives?” No, in fact something totally different. I am saying we should pay more attention to the chemical basis of decision-making.

My sense is that the world is becoming more homogenized into two camps; either you are with us or you are against us. My analogy rests on the idea that perhaps if we paid a bit more attention to the chemical response we feel (note I am avoiding the term heart, mostly because I am at a loss for how to define it), we may ultimately be more gentle and accepting of the world and those around us. We might create stronger and healthier tribes and communities. How many times have you heard stories of politicians “reaching across the isle” and actually accomplishing something productive? It warms your heart, right? And it probably warmed theirs too.

And that “warm heart” feeling is just the point. We should trust it more and seek to include it in our lives. But it is hard to do that when the mind is set on the default of my group or their group, avoidance of risk, and fear of making the wrong decision. Try walking down the street this weekend and see what your heart (there you go, I used it) tells you about the people you meet. Yea, take a risk and shut your mind down. I dare you. Either way, you are still part of my tribe.

Thank you for reading.

broken palette

From time to time, as courage visits, I will post a poem I have written. Here is the first…

Broken palette

The mistake
was in holding my breath.
Aware this tattoo
of blending our journeys
would hurt the most.
Coaxing courage
for the unseen art
of creating.

I held a vision.
Then forgot
I owned the eyes.

Ink was mixed
of history,
The color black.

I believed
in the perfection
of uncertain efforts.
for the burn of new.
Gave in
to this absurd process.

Time made the transfer brittle.
It did not translate well
to the contours
of my heart.

etched permanence.
Scars of forgetting
to exhale into the present.
The sting
and adrenalin
of acceptance.

what I get to learn…

I love to teach. Part of the reason for this passion is that I get to constantly push myself to learn. The “living dangerous” side of having chosen teaching as my career is that you never now what kind of question you are going to get about the information you are so confidently disseminating. Take, for example, the query I was presented with during a recent outing with 25 fifth graders.

The group had visited the University of Colorado at Boulder for a tour of campus and a look at the scientific research taking place. Every 20 minutes, the attendant graduate student scientists (me and my cohorts) escorted a subgroup to different locations on campus. We started with a wonderful lecture by Dr. Jeff Mitton who showed pictures from a recent trip to the Galapagos. Next was a visit to two labs in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. After that we learned about the plants in the herbarium/greenhouse, then we moved to the museum insect collection. It was here that the QUESTION grew from a small egg, matured within its cocoon, and emerged as a full adult.

From behind a stack of drawers containing pinned grasshoppers, bees and butterflies, a small, yet surprisingly confident voice asked, “Do insects fart?” I could only smile. “Umm…” I had to collect my thoughts in the midst of suppressed giggles. “I suspect they do, but, well…I am not sure.” My science brain went into overdrive, while my teacher brain went into damage control. I defaulted, as I have learned is the best course, to honestly. “Well, I am not sure. Can I get back to you on that?” “Sure” was the reply. And later that day, thanks to my smart phone, I did. For those of you who were not present, here’s the short answer…

Methanogens, produce the methane gas at the heart of most farts. These anaerobic bacteria live in the guts of host organisms and help digest consumed food. In the case of insects, this mutualistic interaction helps break down consumed plant material, often in the form of wood and leaf litter. It appears that only a few insect orders, those containing termites and cockroaches included, actually produce methane.

So while this inquiry may on the surface appear to be an opportunity to use the newly acquired word “fart”, the question is actually pretty interesting. And with the recent NPR Science Blog headline regarding the potential that dinosaur “emissions” contributed to global climate change, I may have just received a question from a future MacArthur Award winner.