Tag Archives: poetry

It is the Harvest Moon!

Here in New England, the long summer has abruptly receded, and a series of cool nights have signaled the arrival of fall. The maples, among the first to sense the changing seasons, have slowed their production of chlorophyll, and the first bright colored leaves have begun to peek through the canopy. This year, the changing of the seasons is coupled with a unique combination of astronomical events: Sunday’s full moon, the Harvest Moon, will additionally be both a supermoon and a “blood moon” lunar eclipse. These terms seem ripe for poetry on their own. But what do they really mean?

It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Harvest Moon,” depicts a still nighttime scene presided over by a Harvest Moon, in all its “mystic splendor.” The term “Harvest Moon” is applied to the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. The Harvest Moon, which usually occurs in September, historically allowed farmers to continue their harvest into the night. Other, related, names for the September full moon include the Barley Moon and the Corn Moon.

The Harvest Moon is special for another reason. At the time of the Harvest Moon, the moon rises at about the same time for several nights, making it seem like the moon is full multiple nights in a row. This occurs because of the angle of the moon’s orbit relative to earth’s. Because the moon’s orbit is offset from earth’s orbit, the moon usually rises about 50 minutes later each successive night (that is, the time between sunset and when you see the moon increases by about 50 minutes from night to night). But around the time of the autumnal equinox, the moon’s orbital path makes a shallow angle with the horizon, so for a few days before and after the harvest moon, the moon rises only about 30 minutes later than it did the previous night. This happens around sunset, so what we see is a large, bright moon lingering around the eastern horizon just as it gets dark.

In 2015, our Harvest Moon is even more special than usual. This year, it is also a supermoon lunar eclipse, a phenomenon that hasn’t happened since 1982 and won’t happen again until 2033.

A supermoon is caused by the shape of the moon’s orbit. Because the orbit is elliptical, sometimes the moon is closer to the earth than other times. At its closest approach to earth, called perigee, the moon is about 31,000 miles closer to us than when it’s at its farthest point, called apogee. If a full moon coincides with perigee, we call it a supermoon because its proximity makes the moon look about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than a normal moon, according to  NASA.

Which brings us to the “blood moon” lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse occurs when the earth lines up between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s light from falling on the moon. In the shadow of our planet, the moon appears reddish.


If the earth didn’t have an atmosphere, the moon might appear completely dark during an eclipse. Instead, sunlight bends around the earth and is filtered through the atmosphere, which removes blue light but allows red and orange light to reach the moon’s surface. What we see when a lunar eclipse is at its peak, is a blood-colored moon.

On Sunday, if the weather is clear, we should see a huge, bright moon that appears red for a few hours while it is eclipsed. Stand out in its light to celebrate, or mourn, the end of summer. The birds are leaving, the leaves are falling, and the chill wind wraps us as we reap whatever harvest this year has brought to us.

Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.


“The Harvest Moon,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Read it here.

Byrd, Deborah. 2015. “Everything you need to know: Super Harvest Moon of 2015.” EarthSky. Link.

Morrow, Ashley. 2015. ” NASA Scientist Sheds Light on Rare Sept. 27 Supermoon Eclipse.” NASA. Link.

Palmer, Katie M. 2015. “Here’s Where to Watch the Supermoon Eclipse Online.” Wired. Link. 

“Why a Totally Eclipsed Moon Looks Red.” 2015. EarthSky. Link.

The wise trees stand sleeping


photo credit: Winter Forest via photopin (license)

This year, winter has come late and with a vengeance. Snow lies in piles and drifts over every available surface, and movement through this landscape is muffled, strenuous. In the forest, the deciduous trees stand bare of adornments, their spindly limbs betraying no memory of summer. I’ve lived in a temperate climate my whole life, and though I’ve seen seasons come and go, the cycling of trees through the seasons retains a familiar mystery, year after year.

In the coldest months of the year, trees survive by becoming dormant, a condition in which tissue growth or elongation is paused. When the tree is dormant, all its biological processes–metabolism, growth, and energy production–are slowed or halted for a time. Dormancy isn’t a switch that turns on and off; rather, it is a gradual process that begins long before winter, cued by shorter day length and cooler temperatures.

Length of day is sensed by a specialized pigment called phytochrome. Phytochrome is a type of photoreceptor, which means that it is sensitive to light; in this case, light waves at the red end of the spectrum. Longer nights result in the production of a chemical called abscisic acid (ABA), which signals to the tree that it’s time to begin preparations for dormancy.

As the tree responds to these stimuli and growth slows, the production of chlorophyll slows, and leaves change color (for more on the color of fall leaves, see this post). A layer of cells grows between the branch and the base of the leaf stem, essentially cutting the leaf off from the tree so that it falls away. Since no food production is necessary during the dormant phase, the leaves are not needed until spring. As William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Winter Trees,” observes so eloquently:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

The shortening days of fall combined with increasing cold send the tree through this pre-dormancy phase into true dormancy, which begins a few weeks after growth has stopped. Nothing now can wake the tree until a genetically-determined number of “chill-hours” has been met. During this time, trees grow even more resistant to cold through such strategies as production of antifreeze compounds from sugars, evacuation of water from cells, and addition of fatty acids to cell membranes.

Over time, deciduous trees in temperate climates have evolved responses that ensure the highest chance of survival through recurring bitter winters. When spring comes, the trees will sense the warmth and begin to return to normal functioning. But for now, the wise trees  stand, sleeping in the cold.


Campbell, Eileen 2012. “How do trees survive winter?” Mother Nature Network. Link

Krulwich, Robert 2009. “Why Leaves Really Fall off Trees.” NPR. Link

Shen Li 2011. “How Do Trees Know When to Wake Up?” Outside Story: Northern Woodlands. Link

“Winter Trees” by William Carlos Williams. Read it here.

Sex, which breaks us into voice

Photo by David Berkowitz.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Galapagos_Tortoise_Mating.jpg

Photo by David Berkowitz, Wikimedia Commons

In all of nature, the tortoise is one of the most unlikely animals to be featured in a poem about sex. Yes, of course they are sexually reproducing organisms, and therefore in order for reproduction to occur, there must be an act of sex, but…tortoises? One curious aspect of the tortoise mating system is that it includes vocalizations. And not just any vocalizations: emphatic, rhythmic, sometimes roaring, sometimes human-like sounds. For an animal as, well, quiet as a tortoise, these vocalizations are definitely interesting. And to DH Lawrence, inspiring.

I thought he was dumb,
I said he was dumb,
Yet I’ve heard him cry.
First faint scream,
Out of life’s unfathomable dawn,
Far off, so far, like a madness, under the horizon’s dawning rim,
Far, far off, far scream.
Tortoise in extremis. 

The name “tortoise” generally refers to any land-dwelling, non-swimming member of the order Testudines (members of the order as a whole may be called “turtles”). All members of this order are characterized by a shell made of dermal bone that encases their organs and limb girdles (where the limbs attach to the trunk). The top part of the shell is called the carapace, the bottom part is the plastron, and the piece that connects the two is called the bridge. Though Testudines was once incredibly diverse, today only 260 species from 13 families remain.

I can't not include an image of "Chelonia" from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

“Chelonia” from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

Tortoises, the land-dwelling subgroup of turtles, belong to the family Testudinae. They range in size from a few centimeters to two meters, and are one of the the longest-lived animals in the world; some individuals have been known to survive more than 150 years. Their age can be estimated by the concentric rings on the carapace, though this is not a definitive method.  Many species of tortoise are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females have obvious physical (morphological) differences. Females tend to be slightly larger, and have shorter tails. In some species, females also have longer claws. Males often have longer tails, longer neck plates, and a plastron that is curved inward.

Which brings us to sex.

Male tortoise, cleaving behind the hovel-wall of that dense female,
Mounted and tense, spread-eagle, out-reaching out of the shell
In tortoise-nakedness,
Long neck, and long vulnerable limbs extruded, spread-eagle over her house-roof,
And the deep, secret, all-penetrating tail curved beneath her walls,
Reaching and gripping tense, more reaching anguish in uttermost tension
Till suddenly, in the spasm of coition, tupping like a jerking leap, and oh!
Opening its clenched face from his outstretched neck
And giving that fragile yell, that scream,
From his pink, cleft, old-man’s mouth,

In tortoise mating, the female is on the bottom. The curvature of the male’s plastron fits neatly over the female’s carapace, enabling them to achieve the proper intimacy. Female tortoises have what is called a cloacaor vent, which is a single opening that serves both excretory and reproductive functions. Male tortoises also have cloacas, but within the cloaca is a hydraulic intromittent sexual organ, otherwise known as a penis. While tortoise penises are anatomically comparable (and evolutionarily convergent) to those of mammals, they can have dramatically different shapes and features. Some are pointed, some are flat, and some look like opening flowers. The penis is often disproportionately large (and by that I mean half the length of the plastron or more). Most likely these shapes and lengths have evolved in order to ensure genital contact with the female.

But what guides DH Lawrence’s poem is male tortoise vocalization during the act of mating. Tortoises rarely emit sounds, so when they do, it  is meaningful. Most likely, these vocalizations are auditory signals to females. It is thought that producing these sounds is energetically costly to males, so males who can produce more calls may be of higher quality. In Hermann’s tortoises, females have been shown to respond to recordings of male calls, and to prefer higher-pitched and faster rates of calling. In marginated tortoises, male mating success is positively correlated with the number of calls emitted during mounting. So the ability to produce these calls is advantageous to males.

His scream, and his moment’s subsidence,
The moment of eternal silence,
Yet unreleased, and after the moment, the sudden, startling jerk of coition, and at once
The inexpressible faint yell —
And so on, till the last plasm of my body was melted back
To the primeval rudiments of life, and the secret.
So he tups, and screams
Time after time that frail, torn scream
After each jerk, the longish interval,
The tortoise eternity,
Agelong, reptilian persistence,
Heart-throb, slow heart-throb, persistent for the next spasm.

 In “Tortoise Shout,” DH Lawrence recognizes something undeniably human in the call of the male tortoise. Strange as these creatures are, we share their reliance on sex, and more, the seeming enjoyment of the act. Lawrence hears the tortoise calling from the “horizon of life,” and it affirms his place in the universe by reminding him of our connection with all sexual beings.

Sex, which breaks up our integrity, our single inviolability, our deep silence
Tearing a cry from us.
Sex, which breaks us into voice, sets us calling across the deeps, calling, calling for the complement,
Singing, and calling, and singing again, being answered, having found.


Galeotti, Paolo et al. 2004. Female preference for fast-rate, high-pitched calls in Hermann’s tortoises Testudo hermanni. Behavioral Ecology 16(1): 301-308. Link. 

Kelly, DA. 2004. Turtle and mammal penis designs are anatomically convergent. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 271 (Suppl 5), S293-S295. Link.

Lawrence, DH. “Tortoise Shout.” Read it here. 

McCurry-Schmidt, Madeline. 2011. “How turtles do it.” Link.

Meylan, Peter. 2012. Testudines: Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins. Tree of Life Web Project. Link. 

Niash, Darren. 2012. Terrifying sex organs of male turtles. Link. 

Sacchi, Robert et al. 2003. Vocalizations and courtship intensity correlate with mounting success in marginated tortoises Testudo marginata. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology 55:95-102. Link. 

Tortoise Calls: recordings by the California Turtle & Tortoise Club. Link. 

Because the wolves are shot


What do you really know about coyotes? Maybe you’ve heard the official line about the economic consequences of coyotes killing livestock. Maybe you know of a neighborhood cat that was taken. Maybe you’ve heard conservation groups protesting inhumane treatment of these animals, or recall Mark Twain’s “slim, sick, and sorry-looking skeleton…a living, breathing allegory of Want.” In reality, these animals are neither good nor evil, but are simply trying to survive the best they can in a world that is changing around them.

And as the coyote turns the cat to sweetness
in its mouth, a month-long stint of apricot
pit-, ant-filled scat, a month before of
birdseed, cricket, crappy sandwich; so,
don’t turn your back; befriend them; grab
and wave a stick; the twenty doses meant to still
their little ones were killed inside coyote,
and outcome: snapping infant death: your indoor
dogs, and bitten, squalling children

Karen Leona Anderson’s poem “Coyote” begins with a list of found items a coyote has eaten. Coyotes are omnivores and scavengers, meaning that they can and will eat just about anything.  Though they have a bad reputation as killers of sheep, chickens, and deer, coyotes also eat snakes, foxes, rodents, pet cats, sandwiches, and garbage, for a start. This could be the key to this species’ success in a country where the large predators are either killed outright or squeezed out by human population growth.

Which isn’t to say the coyote isn’t targeted. They are one of the most vilified animals in North America. The Wildlife Services division of the US Department of Agriculture specializes in “predator control,” killing thousands of predators to protect livestock and big game. The most common predator killed (at an estimated 512,500 between 2006-2012) is the coyote. Outcry by biologists and the public as well as a series of articles by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Tom Knudson led to ongoing investigations into this organization.

The problem with killing coyotes is that in some systems they act as keystone predators. Remember ecology: everything (plant, herbivore, carnivore) is connected to everything else in the food web. When part of the web is removed, it affects every other organism that was connected to it. A keystone, literally, is the stone at the top of an arch that holds up the entire structure. A keystone predator, then, is at the top of the food web. When it is removed, the delicate balance between interacting species is destroyed.


Removal of coyotes has an effect on smaller predator (mesopredator) populations; in the absence of coyotes, populations of animals such as raccoons and foxes (and housecats!) increase dramatically. These mesopredators then consume far more eggs, birds, mice, voles, and other small animals than they should, and the populations of these prey organisms plummet. (Housecats in particular decimate bird populations. More information here.) In a cascade effect, whatever plants or insects the birds or mice feed on are then released from predator pressure, and they, in turn, multiply. Replace the keystone predator in the system, and order is restored. This is called top-down regulation: maintaining the balance of the food web below and around the top predator.


in rainpipes, basements, crawlspace, tenants’ dumpsters:
a fed coyote is a dead–what? Since they ate
even the stinging sugar-eaters, since when
they couldn’t eat they bred into your pets
a coyness, slipped behind the fence, endorphins,
dopamine sweeter than the kibble
                                                   –so what’s to want?

Whereas in the west, wolves, bears, and mountain lions act as apex predators, these animals have been almost entirely extirpated from the eastern US. In response, the sly coyote, omnivorous and adaptable, has taken the role formerly held by wolves. Genetic studies have shown that quite a few eastern coyotes are, in fact, coyote-wolf hybrids. As a result, they are larger than their western counterparts, and are behaviorally more wolfish. Unlike wolves and other large predators, however, coyotes aren’t picky about forests and open space. They easily adapt to live in suburban and even urban areas where food is abundant. Chicago, for example, has tracked hundreds of coyotes living in the city for the past 14 years, thriving off of the rodent population.

Though originally pushed out of rural areas by human expansion, biologists say that coyotes are equally at home in the city. They pose no danger to us so long as we allow them to remain wild. This means not feeding them, being sure to pick up your garbage, and taking pets inside at night. Don’t be so quick to judge an animal that is only surviving. Remember that every species has its part to play, and that designations of good or evil are restricted to those of us with morals and a conscience.

With eyes like lanterns out by the latticed gate,
a future soft-tanned pelt pulls up
and moves to the city, deceitful little trot,
about to whelp and, honey, because the wolves
are shot and wildcats museumed and moth-torn,
the city, hareless, knows it’s gone to them; omnivorous
I tell myself, so make yourself their home.


“Agriculture’s Misnamed Agency.” 2013. The New York Times.  Link.

Cart, Julie. 2014. “Congressmen question costs, mission of Wildlife Services agency.” Los Angeles Times. Link.

“Coyote: Canis latrans” by Karen Leona Anderson, from the collection Punish Honey. Buy it here.

The Humane Society. 2013. “Why Killing Coyotes Doesn’t Work.” Link.

Knudson, Tom. 2012.  Wildlife Services’ deadly force opens Pandora’s box of environmental problems.  The Sacramento Bee.

Stolzenburg, William. 2008. Where the Wild Things Were. Bloomsbury.

“Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.” The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project. Link.

USDA Publication. 2011. “Coyotes in Towns and Suburbs.” Link.

Way, J G. 2007. Suburban Howls: Tracking the Eastern Coyote in Urban Massachusetts. Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind.


Special thanks to Karen Leona Anderson for permission to use her work.  Please check out her lovely collection of poetry, Punish Honey, available here.  More information on Dr. Anderson is available here.

Our blood too rich


I choose today, when most of us in New England are sunk under wet snow and dreaming of the hot, humid days of summer, to remind you that every season has its dark side.  When the sun is beating down on us and moisture in the air suppresses our every movement, we will fall prey to a ubiquitous pest that everyone recognizes: the mosquito.  Last year’s wet spring left plenty of standing water for breeding, and the resulting swarms were, in some places, intolerable.  But why do these insects behave the way they do?  How do they find us?  Why do they require our blood?

First came the scouts who felt our sweat in the air
and understood our need to make a sacrifice.  
We were so large and burdened with all we had carried
our blood too rich for our own good.  

Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Mosquitoes,” examines the interaction between mosquitoes and humans in a slightly different viewpoint than we are used to.  Most often, humans view mosquitoes as pests, disease-bearing annoyances that inhibit our enjoyment of the outdoors in summer.  Instead, the speaker in this poem views us as a sacrifice, burdened with rich blood ripe for the taking.

There are over 2,700 species of mosquitoes in the world, and all of them require water to breed.  Most eggs overwinter and hatch into larvae in the spring.  Larvae eventually grow into pupae, which after one to four days form a pupal case, within which they metamorphose into adult mosquitoes.  Their purpose now is to mate and feed.

Female mosquitoes are the attackers.  (Males live only a few days after mating, surviving on plant nectar.)  Protein obtained from ingesting blood aides the female in development of eggs.  The mosquito requires a blood meal each time she lays eggs, and can live anywhere from days to weeks, repeating the process of feeding and laying eggs many times.  The eggs hatch or overwinter; the cycle resumes.

Then came the throng encircling our heads like acoustic haloes
droning with the me-me-me of appetite.

Several factors have been shown to attract mosquitoes, including: perspiration, heat, light, body odor, lactic acid, and carbon dioxide.  When a female lands on a likely victim, she sucks blood with her proboscis, or feeding apparatus.  There are actually six mouthparts contained in the female’s needle-like proboscis.  The outer sheath is the labium, which bends back to allow the two pointed mandibles and two serrated maxillae to penetrate the skin.  Mosquito bites are generally not very painful because the jagged shape of the maxillae results in a low surface area and a minimum of contact with nerves in the skin.  On the basis of this finding, a Japanese scientist has recently designed a nearly-painless hypodermic needle modeled after a mosquito’s maxilla.

Once the maxillae and mandibles have entered the skin, the mosquito pumps her own saliva into the wound through a hypopharynx, while the tubular labrum allows her to suck blood into her own abdomen.  The saliva contains an anticoagulant, ensuring that blood flow is continuous through the meal.  Itching after a bite is due to our natural immune response to the mosquito’s saliva.  Even after the swollen wheal disappears, the itch remains until your body has broken down the proteins in the saliva.

We understood their female ardor to breed and how little
they had to go on considering the protein required to make
their million-fold eggs.  Vibrant, available, and hot,
we gave our flesh in selfless service to their future.  

So think of this as you complain about winter.  Remember that summer is coming, and with it, the mosquitoes.  Prepare yourself as a sacrifice.


Coxworth, Ben.  04.04.2011.  “Mosquito inspires near-painless hypodermic needle.”  Gizmag.com

Darsie, RF, Jr. and RA Ward.  1981.  Identification and Geographical Distribution of Mosquitoes of North America, north of Mexico.  Fresno, CA: American Mosquito Control Association.

Freudenrich, Craig.  “How Mosquitos Work.”  Howstuffworks.com

“Mosquito Biology.”  Alameda County Mosquito Abatement.  Link. 

“Mosquitoes.”  Alison Hawthorne Deming.  Read it here.

Sutherland, DJ.  2013.  “Mosquitos in Your Life.”  Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences: Department of Entomology page.  Link. 

Darkness thickens our feathers


One of the greatest dangers to wild birds worldwide is predation by the domestic cat, Felis catus.  This issue has gained more attention recently with the proposed ban on cats in New Zealand.  In response to data that New Zealand cats had succeeded in killing off nine native species and endangering 33, economist and environmentalist Gareth Morgan suggested that cats should eventually be eliminated from his country.  New Zealand isn’t the only country with a problem, however: in a study of cat predation in the United States, kill rates were found to be two to four times higher than previously thought, with a median estimate of 2.4 billion birds killed each year.

Caleb Parkin’s poem “The Angry Birds,” addresses the threat of the housecat and the willful ignorance of its human owners.  Written from the point of view of a bird observing a hunting cat, a sense of dark foreboding hangs over each word:

Dusk.  The swish of the tear
in the door.  Silence.  The sky a cage
of black-blue branches.  Breathing.
A darkness thickens our feathers,
sticks to the points of our beaks.  
We petrify.  By the table of bait, 
it waits.  A first screech flickers
life into the street-lights.  Then–
reflected on narrow green eyes–
a manicured lawn of limbs.
The baby ape takes in tiger cubs.  
We watch you through the glass,
face alight, twiddling your thumbs.
Playing games in the night,
with our heads.
From up here, we look down on
the pastel television-picture within:
Kitty returns, is named, tickled under the chin:
delicately purrs at an opening tin.
And you, unwitting napkin,
with blood all over
your hunter’s hands.

In this poem, the human is “the baby ape” who has taken in “tiger cubs.”  This language emphasizes the ferocity of the cat, and the human’s position as unwitting ally.

The numbers involved from the previously-mentioned study suggest that cats are very likely causing population declines in some species of birds.  So why are we surprised that so many birds are being killed?  Most likely, this is because cat owners only see a small fraction of their cat’s prey.  A recent study by the University of Georgia with National Geographic obtained estimates of domestic cat predation by attaching video cameras to cats in order to investigate the cats’ activities.  They found that 44% of the cats they studied killed wildlife.  Of these predators, only 23% brought captured prey home, while 49%  left prey at the site of capture, and 28% consumed what they caught.  These results support that previous studies (and owners!) have been significantly underestimating the effect of cats on native wildlife.

So if even well-fed domestic cats are indicated in the decline of local bird populations, what’s a cat owner to do?  Obviously, keeping a cat indoors is the best solution to the problem.  If, for whatever reason, you need to allow your cat outdoor access, there are still steps to curb bird predation.  Never praise a cat that has caught a bird, since positive reinforcement will only enhance this behavior.  Keeping claws trimmed will hinder a cat trying to climb trees or catch wild birds, and a bell on the cat’s collar may warn birds of its approach.  Finally, never feed feral or stray cats.  The instinct to hunt is independent of hunger, and, simply, a well-fed cat has more energy to catch birds.  Report stray cats to a no-kill shelter or humane society.  Remember that, technically, cats are an invasive species, and it is within our grasp to control their effect on the environment.


Angier, Natalie.  2013.  “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think.”  New York Times.  Link.

“The Angry Birds.”  by Caleb Parkin.  Read it here.

Loyd et al.  2013.  Quantifying free-roaming domestic cat predation using animal-borne video cameras.  Biological conservation 160: 183-189.  Link.

Morelle, Rebecca.  2013.  “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US.”  BBC News.  Link.

Mullany, Gerry.  2013.  “A Plan to Save New Zealand’s birds: Get Rid of Cats.”  International Herald Tribune.  Link.


Special thanks to Caleb Parkin for permission to use his work.  Please check out his blog, Skylab Stories, for weekly science poems, as well as various other creative writings.

Alive beyond compare.


“…the heart, exposed exactly for what it is: homelier
than we’d like to imagine.  And alive beyond compare.  
Here, the heart is the heart, and isn’t
a fist or a flower or a smooth-running engine
and especially not one of those ragged valentines
someone’s cut out, initialed, shot full of cartoon arrows:
the adolescent voodoo of desire.  Here, nothing’s colored
that impossibly red.”  

In honor of the holiday, I’d like to consider the human heart.  No, not the one usually found in poetry, but the one actually inside of you; the one functioning to carry blood throughout your body, the one transporting oxygen and nutrients and chemicals to every extremity.  David Clewell’s poem “Not to Mention Love: A Heart for Patricia,” is, as the title implies, a love poem written (almost) without the word “love”.  Clewell has tried to

“keep the heart in its proper place for once.  It’s not
in my mouth or on my sleeve  or winging its way lightheartedly 
in circles over my head.  It’s more or less right
where it belongs inside of me, no small thing.”  

So, dispensing with hyperbole and flowery romantic language, what we have left is the heart itself.  Put most simply, the heart is just a muscular pump.  But what is its function?  And how does it work?

Inside your heart are four chambers (fun fact: while mammals have four chambers, reptiles and amphibians have three, and fishes, without the need to breathe air, have only two).  The top two are the left atrium and right atrium (plural: atria), and the lower two are the left and right ventricles.  (The “left” and “right” designation always refers to the animal/person whose heart it is: so if a surgeon was looking down a patient, the left ventricle would be on the patient’s left).  Each chamber bears a one-way valve so that when the chamber is contracting, blood can come in, but when the muscles relax, the valve is shut.

The heart works with a two-stage contraction (the contraction phase is called “systole”).  In the first stage, the right and left atria contract simultaneously, pumping blood through their associated valves into the right and left ventricles.  In the second stage of contraction, the right and left ventricles contract simultaneously to push blood out of the heart.  This two-stage process is why you hear a heartbeat as two sounds “lub-DUB”–that’s the sound of your heart valves closing.  After the contraction, the heart muscle relaxes, a phase called “diastole.”  As Clewell writes,

“There’s nothing cute about it.  The heart 
is the heart, chamber after chamber.  Ventricular.  Uncooked.  
In all its sanguine glory.  I couldn’t make up a thing
like that.  The heart’s perfected its daily making do, the sucking
and pumping, its mindless work: sustaining a blood supply
that’s got to go around a lifetime.”  

(This last point is not exactly true.  Blood is, in fact, produced in the bone marrow).  In their contractions, the right and left sides of the heart fulfill different functions.  Blood returning from the body is oxygen-poor and enters the right side of the heart (atrium to ventricle).  The right ventricle sends this blood out to the lungs to be oxygenated (and to release carbon dioxide).  This blood then returns to the left side of the heart (atrium to ventricle again) where the much-larger left ventricle pumps oxygenated blood out to the entire body.

But it’s Valentine’s Day!  What about love?

What we call “love” is a combination of emotional attachment and brain chemicals.  Though we may seem to feel things in our “heart”, the heart really has only one thing to do with love: it acts to circulate the aforementioned brain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin) in the blood out to the body and all the rest of the organs, where they can have the physiological effects that make us feel love.  Does this mean love is all in our heads?  Not at all.  It’s everywhere inside of us, thanks to our powerful hearts.

“Sure, there’s a brain somewhere, another planet,
just seconds or light-years away, and maybe some far-flung
intelligence madly signalling for all it’s worth–
but the heart wouldn’t know about that.  It has its own
evidence to go on.  What’s convincing to the heart
is only the heart.  It doesn’t have the luxury of stopping
to weigh, to reconsider, to fold and unfold the raw data of the world
until it’s creased beyond recognition.  Some days it can’t distinguish 
a single sad note from a chorus of exhilaration, but still
the heart has its one answer down to a science: yes.  Over
and over, the iambic uh-huh.  Whatever it takes, some kind of nerve
or unlikely grace: the heart never knows what to think.”


Bianco, Carl.  1999.  “How Your Heart Works.”  HowStuffWorks.com.  Link.

“Biological basis of love,” Wikipedia.  Link.

Boston Scientific.  2009.  “Heart Valves.”  Link.  (Check out the cool animations on this site as well!)

“Not to Mention Love: A Heart for Patricia,” by David Clewell.  Read it here.

Wilson, Sue.  2002.  “Red Gold: the Epic Story of Blood.”  pbs.org.  Link.

Its bark papyrus, its scars calligraphy

Paper Birch in Fall  53269

As a recent resident of New England, I am still thrilled when I see a stand of birches in the forest.  I love this tree for both its beauty and its usefulness: when camping, there’s no better firestarter in wet weather than the oily paper bark of a downed birch.  But why is this tree so different from other trees?  Why is its bark not fire-resistant, its lack of color so shockingly bright against multitudes of drab trunks?  Why has it inspired so much poetry?

“Is it agony that has bleached them to such beauty?  Their stand
is at the edge of our property–white spires like fingers, through which
the deer emerge with all the tentative grace of memory.”

– Nathaniel Bellows

That pale bark is arguably the distinguishing characteristic of a birch.  To understand why it is different, we must first think about the bark of other trees.

In the most generalized sense, bark is the outer covering of woody plants, encompassing everything outside of the vascular cambium.  There are several layers that make up “bark,” which are (moving from the cambium outward): the phloem, cortex, phelloderm, cork cambium (phellogen), and cork (phellem).  In most trees, bark serves as protection against loss of water by evaporation, attacks by insects, drastic temperature changes, and disease.  In some trees, it even acts as protection against fire damage.  Except for the last, all of these functions are served by the fine, papery bark of a birch.  What makes the birch unique is what its bark contains that other trees do not.

“After a storm, one birch fell in the field, an ivory buttress collapsed across
the pasture.  Up close, there is pink skin beneath the paper, green lichen
ascending in settlements of scales.  In the dark yard it beckons you back”
-Nathaniel Bellows

The chemistry of birch bark is what conveys its most amazing properties, and most likely is what secured this tree’s place in folklore, mythology, and poetry.  Birch bark is white because of the presence of a phytochemical, called betulin.  The total content of betulin ranges from 15-25%, depending on the species.  Betulin is hydrophobic, meaning that it resists water.  The whiteness (protection against light damage) and the water resistance led to birch bark being used in construction of canoes by native Americans.  Both betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid, are being studied for medicinal uses against melanoma, herpes, and HIV.

“The trunks of tall birches
Revealing the rib cage of a whale
Stranded by a still stream”
-William Jay Smith

Throughout history, humans have found a way to use nearly all the parts of the birch, so much so that it is often referred to as the “giving tree.”  It has an amazing ability to survive harsh circumstances, and is a first successional tree, quick to repopulate areas that have succumbed to fire or clear cutting.  (Though I couldn’t find data on this, I wonder if this ability is the reason its bark is not fireproof: fire is actually advantageous to a birch because it eliminates competitors and allows a chance to recolonize).  Because of its abilities, the birch has acquired quite a bit of symbolism in different cultures.  In Celtic cultures, the birch represents growth, renewal, stability, initiation, and adaptability.  In Gaelic folklore, it is associated with the land of the dead, and appears often in Scottish, English, and Irish folklore in association with fairies, death, or returning from the grave.  A tree with such near-legendary qualities and capacity for survival–how could it fail to inspire wonder?

“its bark
papyrus, its scars calligraphy, 
a ghost story written on
winding sheets, the trunk bowing, dead is
my father, the birch reading the news
of the day aloud as if we hadn’t
heard it, the root moss lit gas,
like the veins on your ink-stained hand–
the birch all elbows, taking us in.
-Cynthia Zarin


“Birch,” by Cynthia Zarin.  Read it here.

“Birch,” Wikipedia.  Link.

Krasutsky, Pavel.  2002.  “Birch Bark Extractives.”  University of Minnesota-Duluth.  Link.

“Russian Birch,” by Nathaniel Bellows.  Read it here.

“Winter Morning,” by William Jay Smith.  Read it here.

Nothing Gold


“Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold”

Robert Frost had a way of describing nature that forces the reader to both take notice of the world around them and to think about their own lives, their own experiences.  The poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is both a meditation of the changing colors of leaves and of the brevity of beauty.  From the first bright green of a new leaf through the point when “leaf subsides to leaf,” Frost imbues this natural progression with human emotions of loss.  What do these changing colors really mean?

The different colors of leaves are due to three classes of pigments the leaves possess.  Greens are due to chlorophyll pigment, which absorbs light for use in photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn light into usable sugars.  Leaves appear green because these pigments absorb light in most of the color spectrum.  Green is the only color not absorbed, and so that wavelength is transmitted to our eyes.

Yellow, orange and brown colors are due to a class of accessory pigments called carotenoids.  Just like it sounds, these pigments also give color to carrots, as well as bananas, corn, and daffodils.  In leaves, carotenoids work to absorb pigments that chlorophyll can’t, thereby allowing the plant to use more of the sun’s energy.

Finally, the red color of autumn leaves is caused by another accessory pigment, anthocyanin.  In different plants, this pigment can appear red, purple, or blue.  Unlike chlorophyll and carotenoids, anthocyanin does not participate in photosynthesis.  Most anthocyanins are produced in the fall, in response to shortening days and less sunlight.

So the green leaves we see for most of the year actually contain several layered colors, hidden beneath the surface.  Chlorophyll is continuously produced and broken down during the growing season, but as fall approaches, production slows and stops, and finally all the chlorophyll is destroyed.  What we see in many deciduous trees are the remnants: yellows and oranges from the carotenoids that have been there all along, reds from anthocyanins appearing later in the season.  Slowly, the leaves die.

It is difficult to not have a sense of loss as the seasons change around us.  From year to year, after the bright pulse of autumn glory, leaves fall, green disappears, and it feels like an ending.  It is hard to think of the world, reborn, in the spring.  Though perhaps, as Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay,” we must remember that there will be new beauty in the world, new beginnings.

Think of this, always.


Frost, Robert and Edward Connery Lathem (ed.)  The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.  1969 Reed Business Information, Inc.  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19977

Lee, David and Kevin Gould.  2002.  Why leaves turn red.  American Scientist 90(6): 524.                                        http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/why-leaves-turn-red

“Why Leaves Change” USDA Forest Service. http://www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/pubs/leaves/leaves.shtm