Breaking the Shackles of Time

Over five millennia ago, a medical practitioner related how to use the pharmacological tools of his trade – resins, bark, leaves – in the healing of his people.  His specialized knowledge of healing lore may have seemed magical to the folk of Mesopotamia.  His use of advanced technology to record his knowledge, using a stylus on a hand-sized tablet of wet clay, may have seemed equally magical; however, it no longer inspires awe today, for such technology is grasped by toddlers in our own time. 

To say the written word is taken for granted is an understatement of the highest magnitude.  You are reading this now, or perhaps you skim to get the gist before moving on to some other article or blog or meme poster.  This conceptual breakthrough should not be forgotten, for almost every tool and device you use, your food, your water, your clothes, your vehicles – almost everything you have or use or know is only available because someone wrote down instructions or information of some sort. We’re talking about the deceptively simple process of converting concepts into language, and then representing the sounds of language into written symbols.  Then – and this is the real magic – the process is done in reverse, by other people, perhaps in other times.

Writing appeared independently in several places around the globe, but the proto-writing of Mesopotamia was arguably the first.  The writing system evolved over the centuries in the cities between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  Simple drawings representing simple concepts – “ten sheep” for instance – appeared around the mid-4th millennium BCE.  These representations become increasingly abstract until the symbols became tied to sounds in the Sumerian language rather than ideas. As Sumerian power waned and other peoples rose to take their place, the writing system was adapted to work with the completely unrelated Akkadian language (imagine the Japanese katakana syllabary being reworked to represent German).  Cuneiform tablets written in the Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite languages show the flexibility of the technology, or perhaps the limited desire for innovation in the face of an adequate method of recording information.

Tablets from a display at the British Museum

Time passed, the fortunes of kingdoms and empires shifted, and cuneiform-based languages gradually slipped from power and thus popularity. The last known cuneiform tablet was imprinted in the 1st century BCE, by which time the Library of Alexandria, hundreds of miles from the lands of the Sumerians and Akkadians, was already in decline.  From pictographs to the highly stylized scripts, this earliest of writing systems was in use over three thousand years.  By comparison, the common writing system for much of the Old World and most of the New World evolved from the script first used by the Phoenicians some three thousand years ago.  Before rag paper, before parchment made from animal skins, the people of Mesopotamia used a stylus to draw patterns of wedges on soft clay tablets.  Some of the tablets were baked on purpose, and others survived to this day through calamity, as fires in the libraries hardened the tablets.  A combination of durable material, dry climate, and lack of disturbance allowed far more written material survive from the Bronze and Iron Age Middle East than in all the time before the early Middle Ages in Europe or around the Mediterranean.  

For this year’s gift-giving season, I had a very short list. Apart from some books, there wasn’t much in the way of stuff that I desired to add to the general clutter.  Knowing that I would be pestered by the relatives for more, I decided to ask for something quite unusual – a replica of a cuneiform tablet

This one, composed of lines in three columns on the front and back, was written in the ballpark of the 24th century BCE.  During a subsequent period of neglect, this tablet and tens of thousands of others were buried in rubble, where they remained until excavated in the late 19th century in Nippur.  The face of it is badly damaged, but the reverse is legible.  I plan on giving this replica relic a place of prominence in my library, to remind myself and all visitors that the impulse to gather and preserve knowledge has been around a long, long time.

I will end here with a quote from Carl Sagan, who eloquently expressed his thoughts on the topic some forty years ago:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Related Links:

Wiki article on cuneiform

Cuneiform entry on the Omniglot site

A short animation about cuneiform.

Irving Finkel, a genuine character from the British Museum, lectures on cuneiform

A scene from the film Black Robe illustrating the magic of writing to the uninitiated.

Carl Sagan’s “Books Are Magic” scene (the above quote comes in around 2 minutes in)

So This Is Solstice…

It’s been quite a year. 

Fires in North America, South America, Australia.  Earthquakes in the Middle East.  Tornado outbreaks, and a wall of wind across the Midwest.  The Atlantic hurricane season that wouldn’t quit. Locusts in Africa. Final numbers aren’t in, but this may be the hottest year on record – the other contender being the previous election year. 

Ah, yes, politics.  The fear that if the other side wins, they’ll do unto us what we’ve been doing unto them.  A UK that wants to leave Europe but keep their room. A Middle East that boils, bleeds, and literally explodes.  A US where protests against violence are met with violence, a wannabe dictator rails against the rules of order when they don’t work for him, and a face mask (or lack thereof) is seen as ideological gang colors. 

And the big story is the greatest pandemic in a century.  Aided by a populace trained to distrust any inconvenient recommendations from scientists, this particularly virulent virus has killed over a million and a half people around the globe ­– including some 313,000 in the United States since February.   I work with people who think the “China Virus” is a political stunt, and refuse to wear masks.  I know hospital workers who have been in crisis mode for months, trying to keep the careless, the unlucky and the nonbelieving from drowning in their own fluids.

While all the humans strut and fret our hour upon the stage, fighting grand battles for the hyperbolic cause du jour, nature progresses on its own cycles.  Foliage colors and falls.  Frost rims the dried leaves.  And the sun’s daily arc dips a little closer to the southern horizon with each pass, unregarded by most. In a couple of days, the sun’s apparent southward journey halts, as it has at this point in the planet’s revolution around the sun since before there was anything alive on this rock to notice.  There’s no way to know when our ancestors first noted the daystar’s annual wander north-to-south and back again, or what significance they attached to that drifting.  There are archeological clues of stone-age observances on several continents, but what it meant to the people when the sun finally stood still (solstice being the Latin term meaning “sun standing”) may never be revealed.

Frost on the Broomsedge

A natural cycles go, the winter solstice is as good a time as any to mark the turning of the year.  The cultural end of the year is marked on the 31st. The 10 days (give or take, depending on the year) in-between are a liminal time – a threshold from an end to a new beginning, and not quite “normal” time.  Everyone is poised for Christmas, then having Christmas;  they stay buoyed until New Years’ Eve, and start coming down on the first of January.  January 2nd is a time of forgetting resolutions, paying holiday bills, writing the wrong dates on documents, and looking towards a distant spring.    I consider that whole ten-day span of time as the ending of the year, like a held breath before the plunge.

Take some time during this drawn out space between years. See how the natural world deals with this time of year; how do people acknowledge or work around the state of the environment at this time?

Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the evening of the solstice.

Curse of the Starling

If I became governor of Hell I would reserve a special room for Eugene Schieffelin and his minions in the North American Acclimatization Society, the idiots who thought it would be nice for all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to be represented in America. In the 1890’s he released around 60 starlings into Central Park. Because of one single line in Henry IV, an estimated 200 million of the aggressive little bastards currently occupy North America, wreaking havoc on native bird populations.

Why such antipathy for these morons? Why not put in Etienne Trouvelot (who introduced Gypsy Moths) or whoever shipped the wood that contained the fungus that annihilated the American Chestnut?  Because Schiefflin and his cronies went out of their way to perpetrate their crime, and for a silly reason.

Humans have been bringing pests from one land to another since they first commenced to roam, and many native species and a few ecosystems have paid the price.  Many are completely unintentional, from fire ants to zebra mussels.  Some seemed like a good idea at the time, like kudzu or cogon grass.  But Schieffelin’s crowd were whimsically Anglophilic.

Dreamers are fine.  But sometimes their dreams can become nightmares.

Purple Spring

Watch when the tide comes in.  Waves rush up the shore, then fall back.  Every advance is a little higher, but then there is the ebb and momentary lull before the next advance. 

The latter end of spring is like that, forward two steps and back one.  Temperatures have been, by and large, nice – 60s F, occasionally 70s.  Last week, there were a couple of 80s.  Yesterday’s high broke 90, and now it is dipping down to 60 again. I love the cool and know that the hot will be here sooner than I’d like.  The trick is appreciating the good weather whenever I can and as much as possible.

My fallow field and unmowed roadside are flecked with purple now.  Verbena rigida is known by many common names, including slender vervain, tuberous vervain, and sandpaper verbena.    It is a South American plant, more tropical than temperate, but it seems pretty happy in South Georgia, blooming from spring to fall.  It is considered to be invasive in some locales.  However, with pollinators in need, I’m not going to begrudge their presence on my property.

A Naturalist Shrine

What is a shrine?  Whether a box, an alcove, or a demarcated spot, it is a sacred site dedicated to a person, deity, idea, or something else worth veneration or remembrance.  It could be a saint, or a town’s war dead; in a less formal sense, it may be a shrine to a beloved actor’s career or a sweetheart.  Those crosses on roadsides marking sites of tragedy qualify as shrines. 

Shrines may be simple and plain, or cluttered with memorabilia or objects of significance.  What they all have in common is that they are sacred space, in the sense that they are set apart from the normal (“setting apart” or “dedicating to” being among the translations of the Latin sacrare).  In this sense, even a non-religious or civic shrine is made sacred, for it is set apart and dedicated for some form of awe, respect, remembrance, or veneration.

What sort of shrine would a naturalist have?  I’ll tell you what this one has. 

A section of valuable bookshelf space has been set aside (literally made sacred) for a space to, not worship, but to make me aware of greater things; to remind me of moments I spent in wild places, and to center myself. 

The large, flat stone that makes the central “altar” of my shrine is from a massive wall on my family farm – a structure I consider sacred in its own right.  A century or two ago it was a bridge or perhaps a mill dam. The lichen-spotted rock rests on a bed of leaves taken from the same location.  A number of objects lie on or about the stone, each with its own history.

First is a small dumbbell-shaped white rock, whose chipped surface reveals a dark gray interior.  This is a flint nodule of a sort common to southern England.  This particular one was collected on a hill overlooking an early Saxon settlement of the 6th or 7th century.  Both the flint and the stone on which it sits likely felt a horse’s hoof at some point, for that form of powered transport changed little in the intervening 11 or so centuries.  That only began to change in my Grandfather’s lifetime. 

Also atop the of the altar are four projectile points, all found by me personally in my Coastal Plain wanderings.  My archeologist friend reckons the newest is from the Late Archaic cultural period – maybe 3,500 years old, give or take.  At that time, across the ocean, Egypt was pulling back together its fractured remains into a New Kingdom, while the Bronze Age Britons were putting their finishing touches on Stonehenge.

But wait, the oldest of these points is from the Early Archaic, which puts it at having been shaped by a hunter-gatherer 9,000 years ago.  To view the sea, the maker would have had a longer walk in his day than I in mine, for the sea levels were a fair bit lower.  In Europe, Mesolithic hunters roamed lands that have long since drowned in what is now the North Sea. The first farms were already established in the Fertile Crescent, the Nile, and the Indus Valley; the peoples of Mesoamerica had begun cultivating squash, but domestication of maize was still a millennium or so in the future. 

The most powerful technology humanity has ever produced did not exist in the Early Archaic.  Before alphabet, before ideogram, before any known proto-writing, a young hunter learned the vital skill of knapping points at the knee of an elder.  In time, the youth would gain finesse and wisdom at this craft and would in turn teach others with few alterations in form. 

Take a moment to think about the span of time.  Four artifacts, variants of the same technology, collected in a radius of 50 miles, and spanning half a dozen millennia. Why, the device I write this on largely functions on technology younger than I am, powered by technology that was only commercially available in my great grandfather’s time. For that matter, the earliest known writing was developed some 6,000 years ago – the timespan covered by those four spear points.

But let’s move on to the next temporal talisman: a molar from a cave bear, gifted to me by a friend.  The provenance is unknown beyond Europe or Asia, but the species probably died out around 24,000 years ago.  Perhaps the owner of this tooth cast a wary eye at early humans, or Neanderthals; it is possible it never scented a two-legged rival in all its life. 

Across the stone lies a sliver of mammoth tusk, from the dwindling permafrost of the northern tundra of what is now Alaska.  These ancient elephants faltered and faded away as the ice drew back around 12,000 years ago; whether their demise was solely from a changing world or whether humans helped them along is a point of contention.

Now we take an accelerated leap back in time – several epochs, each measured in many millions of years.  I won’t ask the reader to imagine such a span of time as a million years; you truly can’t.  Instead, I will say to imagine that you can imagine, and that will have to suffice.  Leaning against the base stone is a permineralized bone, the fossilized rib of a Triceratops; this fragment of what would have been a 30-foot-long beast was also a gift to me.  The final days of the dinosaurs in which this second-most-famous species lived were still a long time indeed, for this genus arose some 2 million years before it (and most dinosaurians) died out.

And then there’s the spiraled shell of an ammonite.  This is the only one of the various items thus far that I bought (at a fundraiser, in my defense).  The varied orders of these cephalopods appeared on the scene in the Devonian Period and persisted until the general extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period – a span of over 300 million years, half again as long as mammals have existed. 

Remember the orders of magnitude between the flint and the spearheads, or between the mammoth and the dinosaur?  Here we go again, as close as I can track life to the earth’s beginning.  Four large, roughly rounded marbles with brown and black striations, represent those most ancient of times.  These are stromatolites, the fossilized remains of the silty structures left by colonies of cyanobacteria.   These microbes arose as far back as… are you ready?… 3.5 BILLION years ago.  Their peak was 1.25 billion years ago, after which they declined as the world grew more hospitable to things that would graze on cyanobacteria. It should astound you to realize that these microbes persist in hostile environments today, so you can find active stromatolites in Australia and South and Central America. I would have loved to have found these specimens in my wanderings, but I bought them among some rock collections in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

There are other history lessons in this shrine beyond the vastness of the span of life.  Here is a leaf from an American chestnut – a young sapling ensconced on a University campus and not in imminent danger of blight.  But this pressed leaf is a reminder of the billions of chestnut trees which succumbed, in less than half a century, to a fungus blight transported carelessly to our shores in nursery stock. It represents only one of many species we have negatively impacted in our time in this land and on this earth.

Two more palm-sized stones are worth noting.  One was smoothed by the milky waters of the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  The other gained its rounded shape rubbing against a billion of its brothers under the waves on Jasper Beach, Maine.  With a stone in each hand I can bookend the Lower Forty-Eight States. 

This small sacred space is a place to remember moments spent in wild places, and the goodwill of friends.  It is a place to remind myself of the impermanence of lives but the tenacity and adaptability of Life. It is a focus for contemplation and meditation, reminding me to set myself apart from the modern world for a few moments to think about the larger world, both what is tangible and what is beyond human comprehension.

Consider what you have enshrined in your life, and why.

Rogue Pears

As I write this, white blossoms are popping out behind my house — an old nemesis sneers at me. The Rogue Pear.

The callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) is an Asian native brought to the US in the 1960s.  Why?  The pears are small, round, and inedible.  The flowers fill the air with a sickly-sweet odor.  The trees are densely limby and prone to splitting in bad weather.  Like many fast-growing trees, the callery pear is short-lived, lasting only a couple of decades or so.   So why has it turned up in every doctor’s office park and subdivision?  Three things: beautiful foliage– deep green in summer, leaves turning blood-red or wine-dark in the autumn; an explosion of flowers late in winter; quick growth to a bushy, symmetrical silhouette.

Horticulturalists created a number of cultivars, the best-known being the ‘Bradford’.  We removed the thorns, we straightened the forms.  As a useful biproduct, these cultivars couldn’t reproduce.  You plant Bradfords, and they stay where you put them. 

But, in our great and unmatched wisdom, we kept tinkering.  Each cultivar had slightly different properties.  Different colors, stronger limbs.  And then it happens. One cultivar is used to landscape a new strip mall, and a different one dresses up an office park down the street.  Some local bees visit one and then the other.  It turns out that different cultivars can fertilize each other. And these new seedlings exhibit the attributes of the original, wild pear: able to grow on a wild range of soils, able to seed prolifically, and armed with thorns that can punch through a truck tire.  I call them rogue pears, when I don’t use stronger adjectives for them.

It’s a contagion the scope of which you aren’t likely to notice until late winter.  Come February until April, these innocuous green trees suddenly blaze white in floral profusion.  My corner of the county is pretty well infested; a mere 10 years after being fallow, the neighbor’s field is a young forest, with 8 out of 10 trees being pears. But I didn’t have any inking of realize how widespread the problem was until I was a couple of hours away, driving on  a highway skirting the Fall Line.  In the pine plantations on either side, the midstory was packed with pears bedecked with their white blossoms.  Some quick research showed the rogue pear has popped up in most states east of the Mississippi, and it has a foothold in several western states as well.

Everyone knows about kudzu.  You may have heard of Chinaberry or privet or tree-of-heaven.  Now that pear is on your radar, maybe you’ll start seeing it come the end of winter. 

Maybe, hopefully, you’ll choose native trees for your next landscaping project.

Spider-Snake, Spider-Snake…

Can you climb a tree? 

Can you climb a tree without branches to grasp? 

Now imagine climbing a tree without the benefit of hands or feet!

I found this 5-ish foot rat snake easing up a white oak.  Notice how it bends to find any slight protrusion in the rough bark.  By pressing against many points of contact, it distributes its weight and supports itself as it inches up the trunk.  It isn’t a fast process, but snakes are patient.  Besides bark, I’ve seen snakes on brick walls as well.    

That explains the how, but what about the why?  For the same reason a snake does most things – the quest for food.  The serpent searches for nests, consuming bird eggs or young squirrels.  Snakes may also hide in trees to escape their own predators.  Wetland snakes such as cottonmouths often bask in the branches of trees, plopping back into the water when startled. 

The red-cockaded woodpecker has developed an impressive defense to deter slithery predators.  These birds make their nests in cavities they excavate in longleaf pines.  The woodpeckers smooth the rough bark on the nest trees as well as surrounding pines.  They also excavate small holes (“resin wells”) above, around, and below the nest cavity. Resin flows from these wells, forming a smooth coating on the tree truck that snakes find difficult to cross.

All Roadways Great and Small

Here are a few thoughts about driving in England, from an American perspective.

This is besides the left-side driving (I’d repeat the mantra “Driver in the middle, driver in the middle”) or roundabouts (simple once you know some rules such as “the one in the roundabout has the right-of-way”).

The thing to be cognizant of is that most roads were set in place before the invention of the automobile. 

Don’t get me wrong; after a couple of days practicing in Suffolk, I was relatively comfortable behind the wheel, so long as I skirted the towns. By the time we’d made our way across the country to Cornwall, I was playing the theme to All Creatures Great and Small on my phone and in my head while driving through this green, pastoral countryside.

The largest roads, the motorways (Designated with M- just like our interstates are I-) are typically divided highways, with 2 lands each.  Unlike interstates, shoulders are not a given.  There may be periodic pull-offs, but much of the roadside is tall weeds or rocks.

The next roads (often with the A- prefix) are like our 2-lane roads, again excepting the lack of shoulders.  Hedgerows, banks, and walls are common, and pull-offs are infrequent.  The listed speeds are 50 or 60 unless near towns, but I rarely felt comfortable going that fast.  The roads seldom have long straight and level stretches, so passing isn’t something I practiced a lot. 

But wait, it gets more interesting.  Farther in the countryside (and some village streets) are what I called 1 ½-lane roads.  Same obstacles on the sides, but meeting an oncoming car leaves no room for error.  The two vehicles creep past each other, left mirror brushing weeds, right mirrors not quite touching.  In villages, parking takes up most of a lane, so opposing drivers have to decide who yields.

Then there are the tracks that, while paved, are meant for 2 horses abreast or one modern car.  If you see headlights, either find a pullout (which may be just deep enough for your passenger wheels) or back up.

One things to remember on anything less than an M road: travel will invariably take longer than you expect. In my home county, I can cross 17 miles of rural road in around 20 minutes. Along the winding tracks of rural England, a 3 mile drive took over 10 minutes; another 5 mile distance, 20! Folks used to rapid mobility will need to recalculate their travel estimations.

I negotiated the roads without major incident, owing in part to the fact that the drivers around me tended to be more polite, and forgiving, than I had a right to expect.


Moor path

Public Footpaths: one of many discoveries my family made on our trip to the UK.  Sounds simple, right?  A simple green sign points the way to a walking trail through a pasture, along a hedgerow, or down by a stream.  The rural areas we visited were fairly threaded through with footpaths.  But I have to say, using these trails made me feel a little transgressive, like I was getting away with something.  Of course, the US has trails for the public as well.  But they are usually on publicly- owned lands, whether a national monument, state natural area, or city park.  You don’t cross into private land uninvited without risking a call to the police or a bullet zinging overhead.  But in England, if it’s marked, you can walk, take photos, even have a picnic in a stranger’s pasture.  In America, walking through someone’s property – field, woods, even transmission line – without permission is trespassing; in England, if there is a marked public footpath, it is illegal to block it!  And by one source, there are something like 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales (Scotland has a similar concept, but the rules are different).

I visited a handful of footpaths during our visit to the south of England.  The first one was near the village of Wellow in Somerset, as we quested for a Neolithic barrow said to be in the area.  Crossing a wooden stepladder that bridged a fence, we found ourselves among sheep who were apparently used to ramblers.  I felt a bit wary because, as I said, I half expected to be yelled at by an irate farmer.  But we were accosted as we followed a faint fence line path up a hill, then across the hill alongside a hawthorn hedge, until reaching our goal (which no doubt I will discuss in a later post).  As we left, we passed two or three folks who drove here to walk their dogs. This trail I thought was back-of-beyond was getting a fair bit of use this afternoon.

Alley path

The next excursion began in the village of St. Tudy in Cornwall.  A footpath sign pointed down the alley between our cottage and the next, so we followed.  The first bit of trail was fenced on either side, railroading us straight through two yards to the pasture, where a sign on the gate warned “Beware of Bull”.  The path wasn’t so well-worn, so we had to follow along walls and hedges to see what was a proper crossing and what was merely damage from the escape attempts of livestock. 

beware bull
Fae path

Eventually, we gave up on the path and wove through pastures until we reached a paved road.  Returning to the village, we were almost in sight of home when the daughter saw another Public Footpath sign, which drew her like faery song down a narrow dark track, close-mantled by hedge and tree.  Again, we steered by steps in the walls rather than a visible path, until drizzle and fading light coaxed us into turning heads for home.

I loved the concept of the public footpaths.  It is a concept embedded in British custom and is likely too alien to gain traction in our land where property rights are so jealously guarded.

Additional Information:

Walks Around Britain

Finding paths

Summing Up with Uncle Ernie

One of the most memorable professors I had at UGA was Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a tough, leathery S.O.B. who had scars from a katana blade wielded in anger.  He could identify any skull at a glance, feared no rattlesnake, and regularly won national and world skeet competitions until the hand-rolled cigarette habit of decades took his breath away.  He could recite poetry, discuss philosophy and history, and referred to Aldo Leopold as “Our Father who art in Heaven.”  His students called him Uncle Ernie (thought not usually within earshot).

I had the privilege of taking Natural History from Dr. Ernie Provost.  I think the year was 1989, and it was one of the last years he taught. I could tell a lot of stories about this colorful man and the difficult class that I was proud to have earned an A in.  But for now, allow me to share some of the man’s pearls of wisdom.

For the final lecture of the class, he walked in with a tape recorder, gave a brief introduction, and turned on the tape.  I was much impressed and pleaded to get a copy of the tape.  He said no, but after the final exam he relented and handed it over.  What follows is a transcript, first of his introduction, and then his tape.

Introduction (in class):

“I came back to work last night about eight o’clock, and it was about 11:30 before I got home.  And I was kind of tuckered, and I didn’t know what in the world to do with today’s class.  It’s frustrating as heck to get this far and have so much left undone.  So I did something I have done a few times in the past — sometimes it turns out alright, sometimes it doesn’t — but what I do is mix me a tall, cool one, roll a cigarette, put on a tape and start running my mouth off, and now you are stuck, ’cause you got to listen to me run my mouth off here for a little while.  So sit back and relax.”

The Tape:

“I’m all for the man who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving oral evidence of the fact.  In trying to decide what to do with this last lecture period, I’d about decided I had nothing to say, since none of the topics such as zoogeography, bioenergetics, population genetics, hibernation and reproduction, biology of extinction, rare and endangered species —  all of which and many more should be addressed —  none of them could really be approximated in one 50 – minute lecture.  It occurred to me, however, that I might presume to impinge on you for a few minutes with a few philosophies of that most ubiquitous of all vertebrates, Man.  This course, as with most taxonomic subjects, has been primarily factually oriented; and in such courses, there is little time (particularly in the span of the quarter system) to stimulate the imagination and perhaps even the intellectual curiosity of an inquiring mind.  This is regrettable, but I do not say it apologetically.  Our aims this quarter have been to learn to identify vertebrates, and hopefully we gained some insight into what a vertebrate is and how it got that way.  This I think we have accomplished.  But the lessons we’ve learned from the so-called lower animals are frequently applicable to ourselves if we exercise the common sense to apply them.

I make no claim as to the originality of any of the ideas that these ramblings may encompass.  We are all, after all, a product of whatever our particular sojourn in this great big beautiful blue-eyed world has exposed us to.  Some perspicacious character observed that no one can get more out of anything than their previous experience permits them to get.  I suppose this includes life, books, college courses, professors and students.  At this relatively late stage in my own life, I’ve long since lost track of where I picked up what particular thought or opinion I may now have salted away.  But though there may be a lot of plagiarism in what follows, maybe there’s a little bit of originality and perhaps you may find something worth keeping in the conglomerate.

It’s been said that no man’s opinion is any better than his background, his experience, and his general common sense.  Just because a person has a Ph.D. after his or her name doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth listening to.  As human beings we all have a right to our opinion.   But opinions should be based on facts.  We even have a right to be wrong in our opinions, but we don’t have the right to be wrong in our facts.  This train of thought was prompted by a question that was posed to me a while back.  The question went something like, “What are snakes good for?”  Perhaps the most challenging and intriguing way to answer that question, especially when it is posed by one unversed in ecology and vertebrate zoology, is to answer it with another, much more difficult question: “What are human beings good for?”  That one has puzzled philosophers ever since the first cave man stopped beating the brains out of one of his fellow men long enough to look up at the sky and wonder the same thing.  Man consists of some seven octillion atoms (that’s 7 x 1027) grouped in about ten trillion cells (that’s 1013).  This conglomeration of cells and atoms has some astonishing properties:  It is alive, feels joy and sorrow, discriminates between beauty and ugliness, and distinguishes good from evil.  In many of these, and other things, Man differs from other animals, but is nonetheless a product of the same forces.  All animals, including Man, are adapted to a way of life, to specific habitats and ecological niches.  The ability to adapt resides in the individual, but only assumes importance when it becomes a population characteristic.  Whether or not an individual utilizes the ability depends on circumstances.  Survival or death of an individual is to some extent a matter of chance.  Some will adapt that are killed and vice-versa.  Adaptation leads to diversification, and make no mistake, failure to adapt leads to extinction.  This is a universal law of great big beautiful blue-eyed Mother Nature and it applies to Man as well as to the other critters.

If this course is worth anything — if I’ve been worth anything — it will occasionally have asked questions (and I will have asked questions) or caused you to ask yourself questions which are really big.  And I hope that in some of the biggest I will have had the good sense to have left them unanswered.  If you think about the material in which your training in ZOO 350 allows you to observe — and up to now you may have seen but I don’t know whether you’ve been observing or not — some of the things you learn and observe will provoke and inspire, and irritate, and I don’t know which will be the most advantageous to you.  But learning to ask the questions why, how, to gain an awareness — these are the things that really matter.

When I finally got discharged from the Marines Corps after World War II, I was a very mixed-up, bitter, and disenchanted young man.  Realizing that I had to get my head straightened out or I was going to end up in jail or the booby hatch, I headed for the hills and spent some time trying to sort things out.  I learned a lot in the few months about myself, about life, and some do’s and don’ts, one of which was ‘It’s not prudent to squat in front of a fire when the crotch of your jeans is sewed up with copper wire.’  Anyhow, years later, after belatedly getting my life back on track, I read something written by a man named James A. Mitchner, in which he summed things up perfectly for my own case as well as his, and it went something like this:  This tardy beginning (referring to his late start in life, and my own), one might say delinquency, stem from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around the country trying to find out what I believed in, what values were large enough to enlist my sympathy during which I sensed would be a long and confused life.  Had I committed myself earlier, I would not even have known the parameters of the problem.  Any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong.

Even though it took a lot of years’ work to figure out the real facts, I finally decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly-small percentage of the population; the rest simply don’t give a damn, or they fail to acquire, when young, the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades ahead.  I’m not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on Earth.  But they cannot be depended upon either to generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them.  Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many.  I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among these creators.  Hence the necessity of education — that’s really what it’s all about.

Way back in 1958 a man named George Walls said that the great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answers, learns to stop asking.  That’s what’s known as “growing up;” it’s supposedly one of the fruits of education.  Heaven forbid!  Occasionally, a man such as, oh, Einstein asks a few such questions as a child and never gives up asking them.  That is genius.  The human mind is capable of solving every problem that it can formulate if it’s not distracted; but it longs to be distracted.  The great and difficult thing is to ask the right questions.  Their rightness is in their spaciousness; one can grow in them, and they grow as one grows, so they lead ever onward, ancient yet always new, always fresh,  always yielding but promising more than they have yielded.  One might suppose that all of us know some of these great questions and live with them.  This is not so.

In an almost universal habit of intellectual agoraphobia (and if you’re not familiar with that word, agoraphobia means morbid dread of crossing or being in the midst of open spaces) we grow up to avoid these questions.  We like to pin ourselves in with as close and cozy detail that we can manage and arrange.  Most of us are like men with sore eyes — we find the light which permits us to see things clearly, painful, and the darkness which clouds our vision is comforting and cozy.  I’m reminded of the story of Plato’s Cave. It’s been quite a while since I read it, I’ll probably bastardize it a bit, but it goes something like this just in case you don’t remember:  There was a race of people who lived in a cave.  They were chained to the wall; actually, they weren’t being tortured, they weren’t prisoners, it’s just the way they lived.  And, on the wall, they saw shadows moving back and forth, and of course these shadows were caused by the light coming through the mouth of the cave, and things and people passing back and forth across the mouth, casting shadows on the wall.  And these people that lived in the cave figured all this out, and they figured out what the shadows meant, the significance of it, what caused them and all that.  Of course, they didn’t have it right, but they had it figured out anyway.  But eventually, one of their number, a young man, was permitted to go to the outside.  Of course, it took him a while to adapt to the light, but little by little he was able to handle the bright sunlight and he began to see what the real poop, the straight scoop, the facts were.  He realized the real cause of the shadows they had watched on the wall and what it was all about.  And he wanted very much to get back into the cave and explain it to the rest of his people.  And he did, and he went in there and laid the straight scoop on them.  Now, did they hail him as a hero?  Not at all!  This guy was an iconoclast.  He was tearing down images and idols, and they didn’t like it; he was upsetting the apple cart.  So what did they do?  Well, they solved their problem, they killed him.  And they didn’t have to worry about this upstart anymore.

Sort of reminds me of another one of those little poems from Ogden Nash (I’ll bastardize this one, too) that goes something like: For things are frequently what they seem, and this is wisdom’s clown/ Only the game fish swims upstream; the rest of the fish swim down (actually, Ogden Nash said the “sensible” fish swim down, but I don’t like that, so as I said I switched it around).  In other words, when you’re right, you’re right, and even if you gotta pay the bill, you gotta stick to it.  After all, no one has the right to be a parasite on society.  But by the same token, one has to use your head.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Robert Ruark.  He is now dead, but Ruark was a wonderful author, he wrote a lot of wonderful books.  He grew up in South Carolina here in the Southeast.  One of his finest books, I think, is called The Old Man and The Boy, and the old man is the boy’s grandfather, and there’s a lot of nice interplay between these two, but there’s one particular passage that I find intriguing.  The kid is trying to train a goat, and he’s not having much luck training this goat.  The old man finally admonishes him and he tells him something like, “There are some things, some dogs, some goats, even some people that ain’t worth troubling over.  You can feed’em, and gentle’em, and worry over’em, and coax’em and try to teach them, but they’ll stay obstinate.  After a while, the only thing is to give up.  The hard thing is to know when to give up, not too early, and not too late.  If you give up too late, you’ve wasted a lot of time; if you give up too early, you may have lost a winner, and that, we really can’t afford to do.”   Ruark also pointed out that Man becomes immortal only in what he writes down on paper, or hacks into a rock, or slathers onto a canvas or pulls out of a piano.  But the thought, the feeling, the question precludes the immortal result; you’ve got to keep on trying to ask the right questions.  But I’m convinced that each of us should strive to find his or her niche in life whatever that may be, and that takes some doing sometimes.  You gotta thank your lucky stars if you do find it, but having found it, you’ve got to be smart enough to realize that you’ve had some good fortune and found your niche, and stay there; don’t try to be a ladder climber and promote yourself to the level of incompetence (as the saying goes).

This business about giving up reminds me of another old man and the boy, coming down out of some hills of the Northwest in the middle of July in a blizzard dressed only in thin summer clothes, riding obstinate horses, herding a string of granny mules that were absolutely impossible.  The old man rode back along the string, and he saw the young kid, soaking wet from all the snow coming down off the pine boughs all over him, Cold, wet, miserable, teeth clenched hard trying his best not to shiver and sob.  The old man knew the kid was in tough shape, and he said “Son, you may be give out, but you can’t give up.”  Well, the old man was usually right, it doesn’t pay to give up, at least not too early.  Once in a while, once in a great while, one has to give up, but the hard thing is to know when — not too soon, but then again, not too late either.  I guess it’s a matter of establishing your own sense of values and then sticking to them.  A short while ago a group of Georgia bigwigs along with a lot of lesser wights gathered on campus here to celebrate the ground breaking for a $32,000,000 biological sciences complex to be devoted to biotechnological research.  Of course, this building is just about complete now over behind Forest Resources and Ecology, but at the time, ex University president Fred Davidson (who I am pleased to call a friend and whose baby this project really is) was quoted as saying that, and I quote, “Nature will literally be reprogrammed to serve Man,” end of quote.  In view of Man’s record so far, the very population explosion alluded to by Davidson, and the result of Man’s dubious attempts to date to reprogram Nature, I am tempted to ask, along with Billy Shakespeare, “What meat is this our Caesar eats that he is grown so great?”  History records that Conquering Man has always known, in each of his various civilizations, what was important where in the particular artifact known as Society which he had erected at that particular moment.  But the failure of each civilization in turn suggests that, so far, he has been predominately wrong about the whats and the wheres.  So by what colossal bigotry then do we presume to have suddenly found all the right answers in ours, the latest of these artifacts?  As a dedicated doubter, a full-time skeptic and a part-time cynic, I question whether this highly-touted artifact we are pleased to call Society is evolving a better Man or is capable of doing a better job of reprogramming Nature.  With Aldo Leopold, I wonder if we are exchanging such things as two cars under the roof of our neo-colonial garage, multiple TV sets, and all the rest of it, for an awareness of some of the greater values in life.  To get technical for a minute, the Hardy-Wienberg Law, which deals with the relations between gene frequencies in random-mating populations of diploid  individuals, and the zygotic frequencies resulting from such matings, shows that there no intrinsic mechanisms in Mendelian inheritance leading to alterations in gene frequencies in populations.  In other words, there is no tenancy for one gene to replace another and hence no loss of variability in a population.  In other words, Man is a product of the same evolutionary principles as are other critters.  But modern man has a double heritage.  He is a product of biological and cultural evolution, and herein maybe’s a problem.  As I told you before, the concern of man in reality should be not whether his species survives but whether his population line will persist.  It could, if among successful lines, continue in existence, presumably 11,000,000 million years, at which time its representative species could, and undoubtedly would, be far different than that of the present day.  The problem lies in time and the nature of man, and the decisions that he is capable of making.  The bottom line here is, you people are the ones that are going to make the decisions.

I think it well to quote here from Aldo Leopold’s last chapter in his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, when he quoted from Robinson’s injunction to Tristram, and it goes something like this:  ” Whether you will or not, you are a king, Tristram.  You are one of the time-tested few that leave the world, when they are gone, not the same place it was.  Mark what you leave.”

Well, now this is getting a little bit heavy, and you’re probably getting a little bit, shall we say, disenchanted with my ramblings.  In any event, before I leave you, I’d like to read something to you.  It’s a poem called “Evolution,” written by a guy named Smith.

When you were a tadpole, and I was a fish,

In the Paleozoic time,

And side by side on the ebbing tide

We sprawled through the ooze and slime,

Or skittered with many a caudal flip

Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,

My heart was rife with the joy of life,

For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved

And mindless at last we died;

And deep in a rift of the Caradoc drift,

We slumbered side by side.

The world turned on in the lathe of time,

The hot lands heaved amain,

Till we caught our breath from the womb of death

And crept into light again.

We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed,

And drab as a dead man’s hand;

We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees.

Or trailed through the mud and sand,

Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,

Writing a language dumb,

With never a spark in the empty dark

To hit at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived, and happy we loved,

And happy we died once more;

Our forms were rolled in the clinging mould

Of a Neocomian shore.

The Aeons came, and the Aeons fled,

And the sleep that wrapped us fast,

Was riven away in a newer day,

And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees

We swung in our airy flights

Or breathed in the balm of the fronded palms

In the lush of the moonless nights

And oh! what beautiful years were these,

When our hearts clung each to each,

When life was filled and our senses thrilled

In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love,

We passed through the circle strange,

And breath by breath and death by death

We followed the chain of change

Till there came a time in the law of life

When over the nursing sod

The shadows broke, and the soul awoke

In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Aurock bull

And tusked like the great Cave Bear;

And you, my sweet from head to feet,

Were gowned in your glorious hair.

Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,

When the night fell o’er the plain,

And the moon hung red o’er the river bed,

We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge,

And shaped it with brutish craft;

I broke a shank from the woodland dank

And fitted it, head and haft.

Then I hid me close by the reedy tarn,

Where the Mammoth came to drink,

Through brawn and bone I drave the stone,

And slew him on the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,

Loud answered our kith and kin;

From west and east to the crimson feast,

The clan came trooping in.

O’er joint and gristle, and padded hoof,

We fought, and clawed, and tore,

And cheek by jowl, with many a growl

We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone,

With rude and hairy hand,

I pictured his fall on the cavern wall

That men might understand,

For we lived by blood and the right of might,

Ere human laws were drawn,

And the Age of Sin did not begin

Till our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago,

In a time that no one knows.

Yet here tonight in the mellow light,

We sit at Delmonico’s;

Your eyes are as deep as Devon springs,

Your hair as dark as jet,

Your years are few, your life is new,

Your soul untried, and yet,

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,

And the scarp of Purbeck flags,

We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,

And deep in the Coraline crags;

Our love is old, or life is old,

And death shall come amain;

Should it come today, what man may say

We shall not meet again,

Got wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds

And furnished them wings to fly.

He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,

And I know that it shall not die,

Though cities have sprung above the graves

Where the crook-boned men made war,

And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves,

Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then, as we linger at luncheon here,

O’er many a dainty dish,

Let us drink anew to the time when you

Were a Tadpole and I were a Fish.

And speaking of which, good luck with the tadpoles and the fish.”

Dr. Ernie Provost

I feel sorry for the students of today who will never know a teacher like this one.