Goodbye Biology

Goodbye textbook. Goodbye lab kit.

On Saturday I sat for the final exam for Biology 1009, by my calculations, the last multiple choice test I will ever have to take. Assuming I passed.

I know as much biology as I will ever know, likely all I will ever need to know. I don’t regret learning it. And I don’t mean to imply that it’s the last thing I will ever learn – life itself will continue to throw any number of tests at me, every year. It’s just that I am SO MUCH better prepared for those kinds of tests.

I took this biology course online through the University of Minnesota (why is another story) and it has been torture. The lectures were recorded by Rob Brooker, author of the textbook you see here, a fine educator, and a research scientist passionate about his work, and about biology education. But learning science in isolation is not the way to go. I suppose learning anything in isolation is sort of missing the point – there’s no give and take about ideas, no one to help you question your thinking until you submit a paper or quiz for the points you are trying desperately to accumulate. I kept a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with my textbook, and I read that elegant prose as often as I could.

I did enjoy the labs. For the first one, I went to the biology lab at the university and played around with the microscopes. (I had one as a kid, and had almost forgotten that. I think I was interested in it until the year I got a rock tumbler.) For the rest of the labs, I used a hand lens — dissecting dicot and monocot flowers, charting the morphology of milkweed bugs growing in a glass jar in my kitchen. I even made yogurt and kimchi, and learned to test the pH of both. The yogurt was edible; the kimchi was not.

The day before the final, I reviewed my notes a few times (no, I wasn’t cramming – I spent a week reviewing a unit at a time) and then I walked to a neighbor’s house for the annual Apple Night celebration. In my pocket I had two charts I still needed to memorize: the taxonomic groups and the geological timescale. And bless my neighbors – every time I pulled out my notes, someone quizzed me, until by the time I walked home, I knew the material pretty well.

But here’s the thing that bothers me. For the first time, I was absolutely not inspired to write in any way, shape or form, about science. And I love science. I love the big ideas of science, the patterns, the history of human endeavor in science. I read biographies of scientists. I’ve written essays based on geology, astronomy. But I had to work so hard to grasp the rudimentary concepts of chemistry and biology that I had no room for any creativity at all. I’m hoping that will come later. Georgia O’Keefe has pretty much covered the resemblance of female genitalia to flowers, and understanding her work did help me with the flower dissection lab.  I hope I can write more about the connections between ancient life, animal life, our life.

No one will ever say it better than Mr. Darwin:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”  


Walking with an artist

Above Vers and the Lot River, September 2011

Above Vers and the Lot River, September 2011

I spent two weeks of September in Paris and the Dordogne region of France – lucky me!  And yes, I could wax rhapsodic about the food, and the wine and the endless, tiny cups of espresso (with two lumps of brown sugar), and the really great skirt I bought in Paris, but the single thing I loved most was a visit with two artists who have lived and worked in the Lot river valley, in the town of Vers, for 40 years. Ever since they eloped from Wales in 1971, ferried their van across the channel and headed to the promised land of Provence. The van broke down in Vers, and there they have stayed.

Jeffery Stride and Sally Davies Stride have been painting there nearly every day since. Sally paints the garden, and Jeff concentrates on the landscapes around the town and valley. Their work is extraordinarily beautiful, and to see their studio and spend time with them was a very great gift. My friends and I had dinner with them the night we arrived, and fueled by good food and a third bottle of wine, we talked about art, and artistic process. Both of my friends work in the art world, one in Paris, the other in Minneapolis, and both know far more about art and art history than I, so I was a bit lost during the discussion about Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, even though most of it was conducted in English.  But things got really interesting when my friend Michele asked Sally if she could come to her studio and observe her painting, have Sally explain her process. Sally politely declined, explaining she had a great deal of work to do in the morning. They went back and forth, Michele arguing gently that it would help her understand the art if she could see things as Sally sees them.

Finally, Sally burst out with, “But I paint what can’t be seen!”

And I knew just what she meant. When I write, I take something that isn’t visible and try to make it visible. I cannot really describe how I do this. The author notes here on my site are an attempt to explain what I’ve written, something I’m rarely inclined to do — because, for the most part, creative work of any sort should stand on its own. I never, ever, talk about my work in progress because to do so would be to work out the difficulties and confusion —- and then I’d have no motivation to finish the writing. There would be no mystery left to explore.

Dinner ended with dessert and coffees (those tiny cups again!) and Jeff’s offer to take us on a hike early the next morning up the ridge above town.  We met him at his studio in the cool of the early morning, the town still shaded by the limestone cliffs. He led us past the edge of town, up a steep path slippery with loose stones, pointing out a 12th century wall here, an 18th century one there, the remains of a 13th century shepherd’s hut. We came out on top of the cliff above the town, facing south and looking down at the stand of poplars we’d seen in a painting the day before, at the exact perspective from which he’d painted it. Amazing! Jeff’s sandals were inches from the edge of the cliff, no guardrails in Europe. The rest of us stood back several feet, but even from there, the early light playing across the fields and trees, the ribbon of river beyond them was beautiful to behold.

No, I didn’t see the “unseen” that shows up in Jeff’s paintings of that spot. I could only recognize that I was in front of the physical space he has translated to art on a canvas that I can wonder at, and admire.

So we learned something about artistic process after all, just from standing quietly in one particular place with an artist who sees that place in a way we never will.  The greatest gift of the entire trip.


Oradour-sur-Glane is a WWII war memorial just west of the center of France. It was a prosperous and fairly typical small town until June 10, 1944, when a Nazi SS unit burned it to the ground. After they locked all the women and children inside the ancient church and set off smoke bombs, they opened the church doors and fired machine guns at those trying to flee. The altar and chancel walls are pock-marked. The soldiers had already rounded up the men in groups of 20 or so and shot them on the street. 642 people died that day. There’s no satisfactory explanation about why the SS unit did this (part of the panic after the D-Day landings a few days before? were they looking for Resistance cells?) beyond, of course, the fact that the Nazis did this sort of thing. It’s the sort of thing they were capable of, known for, efficient at. Just as all humans have been, from time immemorial, whenever we let go of the reality that anything which diminishes human dignity is a very bad idea.

Last month, I visited Oradour-sur-Glane with my friend Nathalie, who remembers going there as a schoolgirl in the 1960’s, and has taken her own children there. It’s a sobering place, both terrible and beautiful in its quiet peace.  The underground visitor’s center leads you through the events of that day in June 1944, with displays showing the town as it was before and immediately after the massacre. There are excellent synopses of concurrent events, and brief descriptions of historical context in several different languages, though most of the displays are presented in French, German, and English. When you leave the visitor’s center, you walk uphill toward the town itself and cross the road. It’s difficult to think at that point, let alone to speak.

A single hand-painted sign leans against an enormous tree at the road into the town. “Silence.”  Nathalie and I touched hands briefly, then continued our quiet walk toward the town center, past the stone walls of houses, shops, a school. Here are a couple of centuries of stone construction, their wood or thatch roofs burned away, metal window casings bent and rusting. Only broken glass has been cleared away; everything else has been left exactly as it was found on the morning of June 11, 1944. Small plaques label each home and building with the owners’ name and business, and at the places where men were shot, the plaques list their number. I kept my eyes on Nathalie as often as I could, needing to know I was there with another, and dear, human.

And then I did a terrible thing. I heard loud voices behind us, Dutch, and turned to walk towards them, as angry as I have ever been. They were 6 or 7 men and women, in their 70s, calling loudly to each other to look at this, no, let’s go this way, where’s the church?
In my sternest English, and then in angry French I scolded them. “Silence! Silence! This is a memorial!”  They looked at me resentfully, then guiltily, and eventually stopped talking. I walked away, seething, knowing them to be stupid, thoughtless, beyond any capability for compassion.

By the time I reached the edge of town along the river, near the ancient cemetery where the victims are buried, I realized what I had done. In my certainty at protecting the sacred, I had violated the human dignity of those Dutch tourists, and my own. I shouted “Silence!” in a place where there should be only silence. Why did I not give those people the benefit of the doubt?  Maybe they didn’t understand the signs.  Maybe they had not first toured the Visitor’s Center, which charges admission, and had entered the town itself, which does not. Maybe they had not had time to absorb their surroundings.

I gave in to thoughtlessness. And that is not a good place to begin when the point is to consider human dignity.


Dating at 50, 60

Best-case scenario: you meet someone wonderful. You fall deeply, passionately in love, want to spend the rest of your lives together. One of you dies, leaving the other bereft and grieving. That’s the best scenario. The range of possibilities beneath that is staggering, and none of them end well.

All of this is true, of course, in our twenties. But at 50 or 60 it just seems … closer. Because it is.

I’ve thought about writing a book (it’s all material, as the saying goes) about my dating adventures, online and in “real life.”  I’d call it Men She Has Known. Fun to play around, I suppose, with the biblical connotations of “know” but more to the point, how ludicrous to think we can ever really know anyone, beyond what they will allow. For some, possibly many, (geez… most?) men in their 50s and 60s, that seems to be not much. But could I expose that in a book? Nah. We’re all just human beings, doing the best we can.

I will say, though, that I’m getting better at paying attention to how a guy packs his bags. Useless to think anyone at this stage of life is traveling without baggage (and really, if he is, shouldn’t that raise some red flags?) but I know my luggage is clean and orderly. I’ve taken everything out, washed and ironed, mended and sorted it, and carefully repacked it. I’ll do that again if necessary.  Believe me, men who do the same are wildly attractive.

The Lake

Where I live, it’s called Minnetonka, and a good bit of my town is nestled along the shore in a large park called The Commons. Most summer nights, I ride my bike into town an hour or so before dusk and swim at the beach where my children learned to swim 25 years ago. I love that continuity, and love that the park and beach and lake look pretty much as they have for the 30 years I’ve been here. Floating on my back, with all that sky above me, I feel more connected to Earth, more connected to myself than anywhere else. If there is a heaven, I’m pretty sure it’s a freshwater lake ringed by green trees under a clear sky.

I walked down to the beach tonight about an hour before sunset in this gift of October midsummer, and watched a dozen small sailboats on the far side of the bay. They were small enough that their sails looked like they skimmed along the surface of the water, a ballet of paper triangles, racing to the center of the bay, then tracing the shoreline. Choreography. Or just one of the last lazy evenings before the gales of November, which have a fiercely beautiful choreography of their own.