Monday, December 21, 2009

Farewell, Massachusetts

Over on my Bug Eric Blog I thanked the many kind people at the University of Massachusetts for making my work life there so stress-free and enjoyable. I would be remiss, however, in not acknowledging the many people who made my private life exciting and fun and happy.

I have to start with Crystalyn Russell and her dog Ruby, who were my first housemates. Crystalyn works entirely too much, but she is young and will get over it eventually. She is a wonderfully compassionate individual who takes good care of her friends, animals, and friends’ animals. Keep on riding, Crystalyn.

The second half of my six months here was spent living in the house next door to Crystalyn’s place. Thanks go to Linda Phillips for taking a chance on a near total stranger. People are very trusting of each other here, but I still consider it quite a risk that Linda took. She is literally surrounded by family right here in this South Deerfield neighborhood, though, so I had to pass muster with brothers, and Linda’s visiting adult children, Dylan and Logan. I find it flattering that it is going to take two new tenants to replace me now that I’m leaving. Still, why couldn’t the female microbiology grad student from Ireland have started here last semester? Thanks, Linda, for tolerating my idiosyncrasies.

My “home away from home away from home” was Athol, thanks to Dave and Shelley Small and Lynn Harper, all of whom took me to some great wild places. Dave is President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, and a manager of the Quabbin Reservoir (where Boston gets its drinking water). He kindly took me to places the public just can’t go. I can’t believe how easy-going Dave is considering his many responsibilities. He is literally on call 24/7 in case of an emergency at the reservoir (like when a beaver dam breaks and floods the road, stranding several fishing parties). They are constantly doing exercises in mock spill clean-up, etc. Quite an amazing operation they have there. Shelley is an archaeologist with the federal government. She is also a great hostess and made sure I had a bedroom to sleep in when I visited. Thank you to both of you, I owe you big time.

Lynn Harper insisted on dragging me to fiber festivals where I could see sheep, alpaca, people spinning yarn, and sharing knitting secrets. These are not the old maids of your grandmother’s era, though! Lynn and I also went to plenty of wild places, looking for dragonflies along various rivers, in bogs, and other habitats. Lynn works for the state office of Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, spending much too much time in a cubicle in a trailer, and the rest of it commuting to and from. I thank Lynn for also showing me the wonderful shops and eateries in places like Northampton, Greenfield, and Brattleboro, Vermont. Thanks, Lynn, for everything, give my best to Sophe and George (the cats).

When I wasn’t running around with Lynn and Dave Small, other folks were seeing to it that I got out and about. Nature photographer Steve Gingold patiently waited while I got my lazy bones out of bed to go looking for fauna and flora with him at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary and other great habitats. Steve is a true artist and takes great pains to get the perfect shot of a given insect, flower, mushroom, or landscape. Please visit Stephen Gingold Nature Photography to see what I mean.

John F. Carr took me afield a couple of times, including what may be the wettest, but most scenic hike I took out here, through October Mountain State Forest. Thanks so much, John, for letting me tag along. I enjoyed your company and sense of humor very much.

Last, but certainly not least, I have to thank the “bus gang” that commuted with me every morning to work on the UMass campus. They welcomed me instantly and we had many a laugh together. I got to go to the Keene, New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival thanks to them, and could have done lots of other things, too, if I hadn’t been “booked” already doing something else. They also made me join Facebook, for which I am actually grateful. Fondest thoughts and wishes to Stefanie Krug (who is taking me to the airport today), Francoise Walk, Jane Wrisley, Joanne Provost, Margaret Ludlam, Sandy Hay, Diane Willard, Heidi Bauer-Clapp, Craig West, and Gaetan Jacques. Wish I could take you all back to Tucson.

There you have it, the principal “supporting cast” for my Massachusetts odyssey. Everyone should be so lucky.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Darwin Gets Swine Flu

I had the privilege of attending a seminar yesterday evening presented by author Carl Zimmer for the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). The title was “Darwin Gets Swine Flu: Celebrating the Origin of Species in an Age of Pandemics.” Zimmer somehow managed to weave together eloquent prose with stunning graphics and a dash of humor. How else would you deftly convey something as sobering as influenza?

I must admit that I have been one of those folks who has brushed aside the hype associated with H1N1. I still wash my hands and take as many precautions as possible without unduly altering my daily life, but I may have to re-think this after learning what Zimmer knew already.

Thankfully, the death toll from influenza pandemics has steadily and dramatically dropped since the global catastrophe of 1918, but even without these periodic spikes, an average of 36,000 people die each year from the regular flu. This year, 10,000 folks have perished from H1N1, in the U.S. alone, since about April. There may be more fatalities yet to come, but we hope not, of course.

Why can’t we seem to conquer influenza? This is where Darwin comes in. Viruses simply evolve to fast for us to keep up with them, at least with our current vaccination technology. We even accelerate their evolution through our global travel, where tropical strains can mix with temperate ones and create new strains within days. The rate at which viruses reproduce is mind-boggling. The rate at which they mutate is staggering. The good news is that the majority of these mutations are fatal to the viruses themselves. Enough mutations survive, however, to create strains resistant to the latest vaccination, or otherwise insulate the virus from our ability to combat it effectively.

Ok, back up a minute. So what do the “H” and “N” and numbers stand for, anyway? “H” stands for hemagglutinin, “N” for neuraminidase, both of which are proteins that coat the exterior of a virus. These proteins are what our immune system antibodies recognize as foreign invaders. The numbers, one through sixteen, represent the known strains of the influenza virus. Where are the rest of the strains? Well, nearly all of them are carried by birds. Birds don’t seem to get sick from these viruses, at least not very often, but of course they have the potential to spread the viruses far and wide with their excrement, and dead bodies (from whatever cause of death).

Zimmer cautioned that “factory farming” of large numbers of poultry birds and pigs in relatively small, confined spaces may mean more flu pandemics in our future. Virus particles (for lack of a better, basic term) are easily passed short distances from one infected organism to another as it is, let alone when they are shoulder to shoulder.

Winter is the time at which we are most vulnerable to infection because viruses sneezed out or coughed out linger in the dry air much longer than in humid air. The viruses also drift farther, and settle on common items like doorknobs and telephones, too. No reason for paranoia here, just caution. After I wash my hands in a public restroom, I use the paper towel to open the door to leave, for example.

Time to switch gears now and encourage you to follow science through Zimmer’s books, website, and blog. The best place to start might be at Carl Zimmer dot com. Be sure to check out his award-winning blog, too, entitled The Loom. What an appropriate name for what Zimmer weaves together in a totally enthralling fashion. Keep up the great work, Carl!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


We decorate
Our Christmas trees
And defend such frivolities
As festive.
But it is no accident
That Yuletide cheer
Falls near winter solstice
Each and every year.
Impatient for Spring
We string the lights
Like flowers bright
To guide us through long winter nights.

Color, color,
We need more color.
Break out the holly
And the evergreens
To spruce up the snowy holiday scenes.
Autumn leaves have all dispersed
And flower blooms
Are still far off.
So why pretend?
Why not admit?
We need Nature all year long
To keep our hearts merry
And our spirits strong.

Eric R. Eaton, circa 1988

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Winter Mourn

Life huddles on a winter-dead tree.
Birds feather-fluffed crouch low,
Eyes shut to cold onslaught.
Moss uncombed
Drapes over shoulder limb.
A fungus staircase
Up the bumpy trunk
Provides an avenue
For a meandering snail.

Sudden flight
Cracks cloud, leaves branches
Bouncing in good-bye.
Torn shroud of gray
Re-sews itself.
Lonely twigs lace the sky
And mourn the bird-loss
With heavy dew-tears.

But moss still clings,
Fungus holds fast,
And snail still lingers.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1981