Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fragility and Futility

Yesterday while meandering through the winding country roads (blanketed in a treacherous layer of slick snow, as I had found out earlier that morning in an enlightening incident involving a tight curve, a barbed wire fence, and a punctured tire), I passed another vehicle which was stopped blocking the lane. The motorist was not experiencing mechanical difficulty, however; he had his digital camera out and was delightedly snapping pictures of something. I looked to the field ahead and saw the object of his focus: six light-footed agile deer bounding through the sparsely wooded creek bed, then out into open grass, sailing effortlessly over the barbed cattle fence, loping across the road ahead, clearing the fence on the other side, flying off, gone like snowy specters. The fluidity of their movement and apparent nonchalance was enviable—a real visual treat.

But several nights ago this picturesque scene turned a little more sinister. My father had been walking the dogs shortly after dark when I received a panicky call from him: “There’s a deer caught in the neighbor’s fence and the dogs are attacking it and biting it and would you please come help me get it out now.” So I assembled a flashlight and beach towel and wire cutters and after securing the dogs we both drove down to the deer’s location. It was a small, young buck—the buds of tiny antlers were just starting to appear on its head. When he saw us approaching, he started bellowing and bouncing, but I quickly covered his eyes with the towel and he stopped all movement. He was caught from the left hind leg—apparently he had cleared the top of the fence with trademark cervid grace, but had kicked back after the vertex of the leap in a freak accident that caught his hoof between the top two wires of the Red Brand fence. And the hoof was neatly caught, squeezed tightly at the very base with bright red blood pooling around the wire. The deer hung vertically down, front legs swinging, head pointing at the ground. As he was rather small, I was able to support the majority of his weight, and I lifted his body up to ease the strain on the injured leg. He struggled slightly; not knowing what else to do, I rhythmically stroked his sides and spoke calmly. The legs were slender as twigs, the cloven obsidian hooves were sharply pointed. The fur, I noticed, was not a uniform tan at all but rather a gradient of gray and brown and black going down each hair shaft—the color that in mice is called agouti. I ran by gloved hands through it, caressed the heaving sides, felt the ridges of the ribs, the tight muscling—and the echoed pulsing of the beating heart.

I insisted, at this point, that my dad call the neighbor to inform him of the situation. After assessing the severity of the deer’s plight, I wanted someone on hand with a gun lest the leg be badly broken and the animal attempt to hobble off into the night mortally crippled. He acquiesced reluctantly, and soon the neighbor arrived. I supported the deer’s weight while the two men worked at the wire and freed the foot. It only took a minute, and then we were lowering the animal down to the ground. I half expected him to jump up and charge me in an irrational wild terror, but he stayed lying prostrate. My heart sank a little. The neighbor gave him a gentle boot. He attempted an awkward crawl, all four legs splayed spider-like until he slid haphazardly into a shallow freezing rivulet in the ditch. The men pulled him back out and checked his legs for any obvious signs of injury. There were no apparent broken bones, and the wire cut on the injured hind, while deep, was by no means life-threatening. The back didn’t seem to be broken, either, as the deer could move his hind feet somewhat, although dragging seemed the preferred means of locomotion. And now he drug himself off a few more yards and stopped to look at us, only the head upright and alert, trademark soft liquid black eyes staring, ears pricked, nervously licking his lips.

We debated the best course of action and decided that, since the deer had probably been hanging there in a most awkward and unnatural position for quite some time, and was undoubtedly in shock, that perhaps a wait-and-see approach was the best course of action. Half an hour, the neighbor said, and he’d come back. If the deer was still incapacitated, he’d put it out of its misery.

That evening, I hoped the coyotes wouldn’t come and I listened for the gunshot. I pretended that it’d be all right; but I found out the next day that it wasn’t—the deer had been shot after all. Better than the alternative, still, and at least we gave the little buck a chance.

It was a sad event, but I wasn’t affected nearly as much as I thought I’d be. Just a humdrum “oh well, that’s a pity” when I heard the news before I turned back to devouring my sandwich. Emotional detachment, surprisingly, wasn’t all that hard, even as I held the wild animal in my hands and felt his frightened heartbeat through my glove and knew he would probably die.

And that emotional detachment will certainly serve me well in my chosen future profession. I read a touching essay on this very subject last week, and the other day a favorite professor accosted me in the hallway for a chat. In our conversation, she brought up how she had originally been a nursing student, but she had gladly given up on it when she discovered how easily affected she was by the misfortune of others. She’s not the kind of person, she said, who can shrug that kind of thing off lightly. She doesn’t know how doctors can deal with it, then come home and eat dinner with their families and talk and laugh about trivial matters. No, for her, plants are much safer and far less personal—and so now she teaches botany and is writing the first-ever field guide to Romanian plants.

Something odd: Thursday night, while taking a shower, I suddenly had a rather vivid flashback to the day when we noticed, out of the blue and icy-cold day, that Shorty was sick and thus started on our tragic six month journey with the cancer-stricken horse. It’s not that I don’t think about him often, because I do—that little charcoal-colored pony meant a hell of a lot to me. But it was strange how a perfect image of that fateful day suddenly tumbled across my consciousness. Curious, I turned to my blog archives to look it up. And sure enough—thanks to coincidence or subconscious memory or divine interference—it was exactly one year from the discovery. But I still have to say that, one month in, 2010 is looking a whole lot better than 2009.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nose to the Grindstone

I am a student. Not a “professional student,” I guess, though it sometimes feels that way, given my laborious hours of studying and paper-writing and the daunting prospect of at least another six and a half years of formal university and graduate education to go. I try to take my classes seriously; I fret about my grades and worry about my knowledge retention; I remind myself that I’m here because I want to be here and not because I have to be here. I’m lucky to have this opportunity, after all. Now I’ve got to take advantage of it and make the most of its potential.

I’m getting back into the swing of things, finally, slowly, reluctantly. It’s a short but intense schedule this semester: only 15 credit hours, but that includes three four-hour core Biology/Chemistry classes. Not exactly easy or fun stuff. (But again I’m here because I want to be here and not because I have to be here! The end result, a decade away, will be worth it.)

But while I’m working as hard as I can on my education, I find that others are less than impressed. I was recently confronted with a scathingly derisive description “[someone who] still lives at home…still ‘wet behind the ears,’ who has yet to leave the safety of the ‘nest.’” Ouch. And this coming from a person who has never met me and knows nothing whatsoever about me aside from the minimal info discussed in a few online exchanges. Wow.

One of my new professors this semester has tried, on three occasions already, to get me to drop his class. The reason? I’m a sophomore. The class is designed for juniors, apparently. I have all of the prerequisites and the grades to attest to my proficiency in the subject. No matter. He’s convinced that because I have a year (or two semesters) less experience than the other students enrolled, I’m destined for a crash-and-burn in the course. Thanks, sir, and maybe you’re right, but that’s my concern, not your problem.

Age. Life experience. Knowledge is compiled and wisdom is earned throughout the years, it’s very true. At my youthful age, I know I should—I must—remain humble and attentive. I’ve got volumes and volumes to learn…but we all do. Not that I would want to compare with someone much my senior, lest I fall far short in the “life experience” and “hard-earned wisdom” categories. But if said senior isn’t also humble and attentive, then there’s a problem. Because you don’t magically turn into a grown-up one day, having amassed all the answers in the universe. Nope. It’s a constant, eternal refrain of looking, watching, learning, internalizing, developing, evolving. Otherwise you’re stagnant—set in your ways, unable to change, stubborn as hell, lumpy—and your knowledge is useless. So please don’t discount someone’s opinion based solely on the holder’s age. Although the years in their life may not be numerous, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been packed with meaningful experience.

And while I’m on a somewhat-related subject, I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon among my peers: fierce inter-discipline competition and resentment. Chemistry majors scorn Biology majors for taking an “easy, overdone” route, while the latter think the former is too uptight, overly analytical, and lacking an appreciation for the big picture of things. All science majors are lumped together and treated with suspicion by the more artistically-minded students, while math majors are discounted entirely for being just plain weird). After all, science is just memorization and how hard is that? But the science majors fire back, yelping that they’re doing real meaningful work with real-world applications and results, dammit, while everyone else is puttering away in theoretical la-la land. And the Architecture majors whine too much, and the English majors are slackers, the Philosophy students are conceited and egotistical, the Music majors are delusional, the Business majors are stupid, and so on and so on.

Absurd. What’s up with this competitive drive and one-up-manship? I don’t think I’m being naïve when I say that we really can all learn a lot from each other.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Viva La Revolución

Comparative physiology, assisted by the biogenetic law and paleontology, gradually traced the evolution of man from the common ancestor of man and primates down through some primitive species of lemurs (night monkeys), thence on through marsupials, duckbills, saurians, fishes, to ascidians. Then Haeckel advanced his gastrula theory and divided the lowest organisms into unicellular protozoa and protophyta, and multicellular metazoan and metaphyta, bringing the descent of man down to some primordial common protist ancestor of animals and plants….

--Ernest Untermann

One day last semester, I was kicking along the sidewalk with some time to kill between classes. I noticed a benefit bake sale on the steps of the library and was unable to resist. I exchanged 50 cents for a cookie, dispatched the latter quickly, and proceeded into the library to fool around in the computer lab. The remaining two quarters were clicking together most irksomely in my pocket, however, and wouldn’t you know but the first thing I saw when I entered the building was a sign saying “Books for sale - $0.50 each” propped up on a few shelves of tired old volumes. How serendipitous.

So I shuffled through the stacks of books trying to find something worthwhile. A crappy 90’s play. A book of nature photography with poor-quality grainy images. Numerous biographies of people I’d never heard of. Histories of some literary movement or other, hundreds of pages long and unbelievably dry. I had almost resigned myself to an ugly book about American Realism when I spied a tiny hardcover with the provocative title Science and Revolution. I pried it from the row and looked it over. It was dirty, a pale blue in color that was rapidly fading to gray. The pages were yellow and brittle. The cover was embossed with the insignia of the Library of Science for the Workers. The original owner had penciled his(?) name on the first page: Illegible Scribble Ph.D. 1905.

Dr. Scribble annotated several other pages of the book, living up to his name each time. On the back he listed the taxonomy of kingdoms, including amoeba, gastrula, amphibians, and other things that I think might say peninsula, symphony, carbonform, ice aye. Or maybe not. Perhaps he was a medical doctor as well.

But to hold this book in my hands I feel the history there; I feel some inexplicable connection with the late professor. When he read these words they were undoubtedly new and controversial. They were written in an age before “socialism” was a swear word, or an insult, or a synonym for communism and fascism. Untermann, in fact, proudly declares his Marxist ties. The very purpose of the work, as near as I can tell, is to show that the march of time and human history is leading up to the ultimate inevitable triumph of evolution—a socialist society. This is pre-WWII, pre-atom bomb, pre-Holocaust and pre-environmental crisis and pre-War on Terror. How naïve. How quaint.

Today, the words are stuffy, outdated, archaic. Old news. Boring. So boring, in fact, that after trudging through the first 40-odd pages on a long bus ride during a worthless music trip (and reading the words “proletarian” and “bourgeois” so many times I began to hate the Romans and the French), I grew so tired of Untermann’s history of philosophical thought that I nearly discarded the whole thing. Recently, however, I picked it back up, turned to a random page, and found the excerpts quoted here.

And there’s some good stuff:

Once that the unity of all organisms in the world had been established, two questions immediately required an answer. One of them concerned the unity of psychological phenomena, the other that of life.

If the physiological development of mankind, animals, and plants knows no line of demarcation, but only degrees of organization, and if psychology is in reality a branch of physiology, why should there be a line of demarcation between the psychological development of man, animals, and plants? And if all organisms are descended from some common primordial protoplasmatic form, then the discovery of the origin of the vital processes of that form, or of any form, would solve the question of all organic life in the universe….

(Here Dr. Scribble writes a tentative question mark in the margins. I, too, had trouble understanding the author’s meaning. But then, skipping a few paragraphs ahead, comes a technical essay that suddenly flowers into intricate prose.)

The quest after the origin of life compelled science to penetrate far beyond so-called living organisms. It led on into the inorganic, and wiped out the line of demarcation between organic and inorganic, living and dead matter. It showed that organic life arose through the mechanical evolution of inorganic life. It revealed that life and death are but two poles of the same universe, that the distinction can no longer be between life and death, but only between different degrees of organization and intensity of life, between positive and negative life.

Personal immortality now resolves itself into personal evolution. Life and consciousness are now revealed as attributes of all matter, going through as many different stages of evolution as the various material forms in the universe. The personal immortality of any definite form would involve the control of all evolutionary processes which endanger the persistence of that form. So long as such control is not established, there is a ‘transmigration of the soul,’ but not in the way that the mystics use this term. The physiological processes of a certain positive consciousness, or ‘soul,’ are converted by the process of ‘death,’ into negative consciousness, which in turn becomes the positive consciousness of some other form.

One hundred and five years later—after the discovery of DNA and inheritance and penicillin and nuclear energy and radiation—we’re still at this same spiritual threshold. We’ve got a lot to learn and, it seems, a lot of lifetimes to do it.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m going back to school tomorrow.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Sore Spot

A couple hours ago, I chanced upon a link tonight of a video stream portraying a mare actively foaling. They had a camera set up in the stall that fed to a popular website whose only purpose is to post such videos. The mare was obviously agitated and in extreme discomfort. She paced and turned and shook and trembled, lay down, stood up, looked around, backed into the corner of her stall, sweated, quivered. And then, as I watched with rapt attention: the miracle of life. Two tiny white feet enclosed in a membranous sac. They would appear for a moment, and then recede from view. People bustled about the tiny stall, interfering all too much as humans are wont to do. They bothered the mare and someone grabbed at the little hooves and pulled and pulled while the mare pushed and pushed. Slowly a form emerged from some alien void. And then—new life, a little wet misshapen thing that looked around in total squinty-eyed shock. A tiny head wobbled on an unsteady neck. Four spidery legs stuck out haphazardly. Vet and owner dried the thing and cleared it of its casing. Oxygen was administered, for it seemed a little weak. Someone held up a sign to the web cam: “FILLY.” So she was a girl, a little red sorrel, the much anticipated result of a breeding 11 months before. She was naturally unsure of herself, and for a while she simply gazed stupidly at the hustle and bustle that surrounded her as her exhausted mother periodically snuck a peek behind. Then the mare rose to lick her new baby, and the foal attempted to sort out her uncoordinated and unresponsive feet. The front ones seemed to work all right, but the two in the back flailed around and fought vainly for a purchase. She flopped on her side again and again. And then, finally, about a half hour after her unceremonious entrance to the world, success! She rose and wobbled over to her dam, looking for the life-giving milk that she instinctively knew she needed. She soon found that it was not located between the front legs, as overly helpful people ushered her to the correct end. Here I stopped watching.

I’ve never seen the live birth of a horse before, either in the flesh or on a screen. It was a touching experience. But at the same time, it makes me think of the overbreeding problem….

Let me preface the following by saying that you probably shouldn’t read it. If you aren’t involved in the horse industry, it won’t make a lot of sense because I leave many important facts and arguments out, both in support of and opposing the current slaughter ban. If you are involved, you’ve heard it all a million times. It’s old news. An d it's all packaged in the wonderful format of an unorganized tirade. *Ahem.*

I don’t generally comment on current events, usually because I’m sadly uninformed and pathetically apathetic. There is one issue, however, that I feel the need to address because it’s such a hot-button one in the agricultural community. Two years ago, Congress banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption on US soil. This was after a huge public campaign by animal rights activists and celebrities who decried the murder of Trigger. Prior to this, 100,000 equines per year were processed in the States, with many more being shipped out of the country for the same intent. The closing of the kill plants created an even greater surplus of horses, with even greater numbers being shipped, often crowded into inappropriate trailers and hauled for obscene distances with no food or water, to Canada or Mexico, where conditions are, to say the least, appalling. But quite frankly the conditions in the US plants hadn’t been much better.

There’s a whole lot to get into here, so I won’t even bother with the details. Suffice it to say that there are good arguments for each side. Neglect, abandonment, and starvation do increase when there is a surplus, and a surplus results from a lack of disposal method (slaughter). But there are currently no regulations in place to ensure a humane method of killing. The industry is corrupt.

They’re now talking about bypassing federal regulations and opening up a slaughter facility in Missouri. I don’t think it will happen; the public outcry is too strong and the legalities are formidable. But it reopens this tired old debate. I don’t know what side of the fence I’m on. It depends on the day and the facts being presented….and the facts are so often twisted. I’m for the welfare and the best interest of the animals. That is all.

We can’t force our moralities on other cultures, obviously. Just because we in America find the idea of a Trigger burger appalling doesn’t mean that other people feel the same way. It's not wrong to eat horsemeat. It is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals.

We’ve got a problem here. It’s called “irresponsibility.” There are too many damn horses in the US, and it’s because of breeders who overproduced subpar stock with no plans for their future use, training, or marketability. Many perfectly useful horses end up on a plate in France after enduring a stressful transport and a painful death simply because no one wanted them, or no one saw their potential, or no one had time to train them, or, simply put, someone decided to buck responsibility. If we’re going to have slaughter, find a humane way to do it. Regulate it better. Have vets and inspectors at every step in the process. But until that day comes, it’s an entirely inappropriate and greedy means of getting rid of excess (which should have never been created in the first place!). Dammit.

I apologize for the ramble, but I’ve got to type this out somewhere. I’d give more facts and information about euthanasia and carcass disposal if only I had the room and time….

[Anecdote: When asked to write about a controversial national issue for a scholarship essay, I chose this very topic, arguing that the slaughter plants should be reopened with the appropriate safeguards and regulations in place to ensure the humane treatment of horses on American soil and to prevent export to Mexico or large scale neglect and abandonment. They apparently assigned interviewers based on the topic of the paper, and I was paired with a French professor who just so happened to be a radical animal rights activist. She is heavily involved with an animal advocacy club at the university and is currently working with Bob Barker to develop the nation’s first Animal Ethics minor. I, unfortunately, did not know this at the time. I imagine that my seemingly cold pro-slaughter viewpoint did not impress. Oops.]

Friday, January 8, 2010


There’s a -18ᵒ windchill outside. This cold is insane. Perhaps other places get colder—much colder—but we Missourians can’t handle this relentless wind, the heavy snow, the icy roads, or the intense chill (“frigid,” says the weatherman, while warning of frostbite). Even the horses, though hardy creatures, are suffering the effects of the inclement weather. They can hardly wait to come into the warm barn at night, and when the snow comes down and melts into their downy underfur, they shiver beneath their turnout blankets and turn their backs to the wind. When I, stupidly, tried to ride the other day in 6ᵒ weather (“It’s not really all that bad once you get moving!”) I didn’t make it more than five minutes before my frozen-lunged mount was panting beneath me, and my extremities were numb, and my face was burned from the wind.

It’s beautiful, but it’s a cruel beauty. Dry crunchy snow is blown and whipped by wily winds, drifting into thick piles, exposing frozen rutted ground. Turn towards the wind and your face is blasted; eyes freeze; frigid air whistles through ears until it sears the brain; nose goes numb and dribbles like a faulty faucet. Turn away and the wind seeps through the neckline of your jacket to tousle your hair and make you shiver.

I hold my horse steady. The vet mandated 10 minutes of hand-walking a day for her rehabilitation, so 10 minutes a day is what I shall do, braving the bitterness. The cold and wind make the mare crazy; she plunges at the end of her lead line, pulls away from me, turns again, swivels and bucks and rears and paws. She flattens her ears and shakes her head at me, blaming me for her confinement, then vents her aggression on the snow, striking it with exaggerated motions until she finds some buried grass, then tearing violently at the hidden green blades. She stops to roll in the powder, and I urge her on. We repeat the whole process as she grows more agitated and I grow weaker. I’m panting from exertion by the time I’m done, but I’m still awfully cold with dulled senses and slowed reactions as I drag her back to the only marginally warmer barn.

I chose to go into town the other day to meet some old friends before we once again parted our separate ways. It was a bad decision because the snow was heaping down and the roads were slick with ice. On the way home, the highway was unrecognizable. I crept along at 35 miles per hour and felt reckless at that speed. The lanes were gone, and it was impossible to tell where the edge of the road met the shoulder or median. Soft whiteness enveloped all, and fat flakes marred by windshield as my wipers slashed to clear it. Everyone was driving smack dab in the center, straddling the place where we presumed the lane lines would be. A few fools tried to pass me, but quickly gave up once their tires hit a slick spot and their cars lurched. My headlights showed the paths that many before me had taken—sliding off the road and into ditches, over hills, into woods, out of sight. I’ve made that mistake once and, knock on wood, don’t intend to do it again. Something about having your car sliding backwards down the highway, slicing through a reflective road marker, and coming to rest just feet from an imposing wall of rock has a sobering experience that one doesn’t soon forget, let me assure you.

But at the end of the day, the consolation prize is a warm house. Even during the worst of it—even when I’m carrying an eight gallon bucket full of freezing water over uneven terrain, and even when I trip on a snowdrift and spill the whole damn thing all over myself (and it instantly freezes on my coveralls and gloves and my already-slow movement becomes even more impeded) and I utter things not worth repeating and bury my face below my collar when confounded by the futility of it all—even then I know that there’s a fire to go sit by, and good food, and a comfy bed. And I can gaze out the window as a simple spectator to the sullen beauty of the snow.

And then it will be all right.

Friday, January 1, 2010


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

--Charles Dickens

Ten years ago, I was asleep in bed, but I would have certainly stayed up until midnight watching replays of the ball drop in NYC on a news station and gulping sparkling cider to match my parents cheap wine as we celebrated—in our muted fashion—the new year and the new millennium. We probably laughed and joked as others breathed sizes of relief that the whole Y2K thing had been blown horribly out of proportion. There was no apocalypse, no world collapse, and no need for stockpiles of bottled water and canned goods, despite many widespread dire predictions to the contrary. It was a fairly exciting time for a nine-year-old, full of promise and anticipation.

One year ago, I was climbing a tree, seized by one of my insane impulses (and wasn’t I just complaining that my life lacks spontaneity?!), nearly oblivious to the bitter cold as I cavorted about in the chilly windy pasture in nothing but my pajamas and a pair of muck boots.

It’s even colder now, and it would be foolhardy to attempt a repeat of that stunt. This despite a magnificent full moon and a clear sky. Everything, as Jonathan Safran Foer says, is illuminated.

Supertramp was on the radio on my drive back from town at 10 this evening, urging me to take the long way home. So I did, wishing I could cut the headlights and drive only by the soft aura of pale blue moonlight. There were a couple of deer in the road, a pair of does, one on each side. I stopped and they sailed over the barbed wire fence only to wait patiently just on the other side for me to leave so they could resume their nocturnal browsing. In a halo of wooded moonbeams they were still clearly visible.

And 2009. It’s over. Just like that—a tick of the second hand, and the powers that be (the ones who set our clocks and number our years and govern our concept of time) declare a new decade.

This year, as referenced in the opening snippet of Dickens, has been a turbulent one. How optimistic I was, perched in the boughs of a dormant persimmon, surveying my infinite prospects! So much has changed, so many tragedies, such lovelorn pining, such pain and failure and sorrow and futility. But on the other hand, glimmers of hope, small successes that built upon one another, the building of a solid foundation, the branching of strong support and friendship, a strengthening of resolve and willpower.

This doesn’t feel like a transition, but I’m hoping it is. Here’s to a change in the winds of fortune, to self-made success, to happiness, to friendship, to goodwill, to peace, to harmony and camaraderie, to blessings and goodness and a better life for all.

I’ll drink to that….care to join me?