things I know about living beings

First of all, it’s not much. My understanding of the natural world looks more like an absence than anything else. I’m not good at science or math. This is something I often treat like a personality trait perhaps because it makes me very different than more than half of my family. Maybe that makes it less of a personality trait and more of a lapsed gene. (I’m sure geneticists hate when we say things like that—or maybe they don’t, maybe we do inherit things like the ability to get an A in Honors Chemistry. What do I know? It’s not much.)

I find the natural world delightful enough in spite of my inability to understand it and sometimes, I think, because of my inability to understand it. That may not make a whole lot of sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to my scientist brother, Tim. When I say things like this, he says things like, “Well, why don’t you just learn more about it?” The answer is that I do try, not very hard, just enough to get the answers I’m looking for and draw conclusions about the rest. Harmless conclusions.

I should note, especially at a time like this, that I believe in science, I trust scientists, and I would never argue my own judgment over fact. At least, not seriously. Maybe to aggravate Tim. Never about the big stuff.

I’d also like to note that this piece is already giving me trouble. Last week, I watched a lecture online that I’d had a ticket to attend in person. The speaker was Amanda Little, a climate writer who recently completed a book about how climate change will affect food. At some point during the lecture, she referenced her invisible audience as “fellow science writers.” It’s a strange feeling, one where you’re suddenly aware that perhaps you’re in a space where you don’t belong, especially when you’re technically sitting on your own couch drinking coffee out of your own mug and listening to a lecture that, as a long-term vegetarian and lapsed vegan and as someone who lives in fear of the impending climate crisis, speaks to you whether you completely understand the science behind it or not.

Fellow science writers, and I among them. Well, then, I’d hate to be an imposter, so I think I’ll give it a shot. (Please allow me to clarify that in no way was Amanda Little insinuating that I genuinely was not supposed to be there. It was not an offensive remark and I was not offended by it. This is purely a charade, a mental costume contest put on for my own amusement.) Let’s begin.

  1. Bees are very important. Worker bees, the ones who collect and redistribute pollen, the ones who make most of our food possible, are female. Drone bees are male. Drone bees do not sting or collect pollen. Their only job, literally their one and only job, is to mate with a queen so she can make all of the bee babies for the hive. It’s sort of like a matriarchal bee-version of the American 1950s. Well, except that the worker bees are both the pollen-winners and the homemakers. And I don’t know how the queen fits into that comparison. They can’t all be winners. Don’t kill bees.
  2. Wasps are the scariest goddamn creatures on this planet, and you cannot tell me otherwise. First of all, if you kill a wasp, its dead body sends out a signal to its entire nest to mobilize and attack you. Second, wasps are expert hunters that eat other bugs. Does that make them carnivores? I don’t know but listen. There is a certain type of wasp that lays its eggs on or in the bodies of other insects, and sometimes the eggs of other insects, so that when the wasp babies hatch, they can feast immediately. This is the worst thing I have ever learned in my life.
  3. Certain small dogs, like terriers and dachshunds, are considered “earthdogs.” They are called this because of their propensity for finding and catching the little critters who burrow into the earth. However, I prefer to think that the term “earthdog” implies that all other dogs are “spacedogs.” If your dog is not small and prone to digging up your yard in search of chipmunks, it is from outer space. I don’t make the rules.
  4. Dogs can be vegetarians. You will pay a hell of a lot for their fancy plant-based food, but it’s true. If anyone tells you that dogs can’t be vegetarians because “look at those teeth, they’re designed for flesh,” just know that they’re wrong and that’s a stupid argument. Also know that you can’t feed your dog some spring mix and call it a day. You’ll either have to buy the expensive food or do a lot of research to make sure that they’re getting all of the amino acids they need. I’m not doing that research for you as I do not have a vegetarian dog.
  5. Cats are obligate carnivores. That means that they cannot be vegetarians and trying to make them eat a plant-based diet will kill them. There is also an ongoing debate over the nutritional value of dry versus wet cat food. I am not interested in this debate. I am interested in the fact that cat teeth are not fit for chewing. They’re fit for ripping and tearing. Because of this, dry cat food and treats are designed to shatter under fairly light pressure. I don’t think my cat takes even this minimal step to break her food down in her mouth. She just swallows everything whole.
  6. According to the laws of physics—I’m just kidding. I don’t know.
  7. Scientifically speaking, all women love—kidding again. Don’t be stupid. Gender essentialism is the idea that women have certain intrinsic traits and men have certain intrinsic traits. If anyone asserts that “all women act this way” or “all men love this thing,” understand that what they’re saying is no more intelligent than, “Boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus.” Gender is made up. It is not the same as biological sex and it is not inherently linked to biological sex. If you find this to be upsetting or scary in some way and not liberating (which it is), you have work to do. In the words of Judith Butler, “We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us…Actually, it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time. So, to say that gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.” Or, if you prefer, in the words of RuPaul, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”
  8. Green onions are really easy to regrow. Keep the roots and the bulb intact and submerge them in water with the top sticking out. As long as you maintain it (change the water, trim the roots when they get too tentacle-like), you won’t have to buy green onions from the store anymore.
  9. Propagation is the “breeding of specimens of a plant or animal by processes from the parent stock.” As I suspected, it has a second meaning, which is “the action of widely spreading and promoting an idea, theory, etc.” I tried to propagate my arrowhead plant by placing some clippings in a champagne glass of water. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d located the nodes, which are bumps from which more roots can grow. After two weeks, I threw away the limp clippings that had produced nothing more than cloudy water. As a leader of plants, I failed. That’s a little joke I made up just now. I think it’s safe to say that the joke failed, too.
  10. I have a hypothesis: If humans continue to practice social distancing for much longer (which we will), then animals will take over the streets. The squirrels and birds that I can see from my apartment windows are my test subjects. There do seem to be quite a lot of them running and flying around, confident and undisturbed, but the study is, as of yet, inconclusive.
  11. In theory, if you put a blanket or cover over a birdcage, the bird will quiet down and, I suppose, go to sleep. In reality, this is not universally true. Why do I know this? Because I used to pet sit for a coworker who owned no less than six birds, two of which were feral and one of which was just kind of an asshole. The asshole bird couldn’t care less about darkness. It meant nothing to him. Whether his cage was uncovered or covered, he screamed like the heroine of a 1960s thriller who has just discovered a dead body in her bedroom. Like Marion Crane when Norman Bates pulls back the shower curtain. Like Melanie Daniels being attacked by, well, birds.
  12. Something like one in a thousand baby sea turtles make it from their little sand nest to the ocean after hatching. Birds flip the hell out when the turtles emerge from the ground and eat them. I know this from a nature documentary I put on after a very hard morning. I was having trouble focusing on my work, so I turned the documentary on in the background. One moment, I looked up to find adorable sea turtles all over my TV screen. The next, they were being decimated by birds. This is, of course, the circle of life. However, that does not stop me from thinking it is rude.

I’m stopping now for a few reasons. The first and most practical is that I’m nearing my wordcount. The second is that this is unraveling, or maybe it was never raveled (?) in the first place. I’m sure it is clear to you now that what I said at the beginning, which is that I don’t know much, is the truth. It is also the truth that I still want to know the stuff and I try, with varying degrees of effort, to understand the stuff.

What I don’t think I realized, or didn’t fully realize, is that this is an essay about wonder in both senses of the word:

Noun: “a cause of astonishment or amazement”

Verb: “to feel curiosity or doubt”

A synonym for the noun is “miracle.” The root of the verb is the Old English word, “wundrian,” which meant to “admire; make wonderful; magnify.”

And that’s just it, isn’t it? When we learn things, and I mean learn because we want to, because we’re genuinely interested, not because we think we have to, it’s a process of magnification. Suddenly, that thing we’re learning about is more interesting than anything else we already know or could know, which is why we’re taking the time to learn about it. I’m not sure which is more miraculous, that these things, like wasps planting baby bombs inside of other insects, really happen—or that we are inspired to learn about them.

I guess my point—and again, I’m not sure that it was a point I understood from the start, and so I am saying this to myself as much as I am to you—is not to worry about how much you don’t know. You can get by, can’t you? Instead, just revel in your own wonder. Enjoy learning. Let yourself admire, make things wonderful, magnify those moments or happenings that draw you in, those questions you don’t know how to answer, until they seem like miracles.

4 Comments

  1. awsahm says:

    Love this one!

    Like

  2. awsahm says:

    I read it. Much better than doom and gloom in wapo. I’m now reading the comics in the absence of a sports page and rest of depressing paper! Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  3. Lisanne says:

    Love your writing! Stay safe xx

    Like

  4. Linda Newsom says:

    Excellent! I like science stuff too but don’t know much about it. I have science guys to tell me what’s what. Poor baby turtles, though…

    Like

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