Peabody, here

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 3, 2014

We’re in the staff cafeteria (Enders Hall) of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in the ghost town of Gothic right outside Crested Butte where we are having lunch. Beef brisket sandwiches with barbecue sauce, a substantial salad bar, and, astonishingly, fresh cream puffs filled with chocolate crème patissière for dessert. I love it! The only thing missing? Those little square cartons of milk we used to buy in elementary school (somewhere back in the late Pleistocene) for three cents each, where you lifted up the foiled corner to stick the straw in.

 

As if the cafeteria and beautiful Elk Mountains we’ve been exploring aren’t enough, we’re talking with scientists! We’re about to have a private tour of the facility with the boyish biologist who runs it, the friend of a friend.

At lunch, we listen to some of these scientists at our table (there are about seventy in Gothic for the summer, a number of whom have been coming for twenty years or more) talk about their various areas of study. Salamanders in running water. Salamanders in still water. Specific insects. A current project involving the study of ancient bacteria whose on-off switches relate to their appetite/non-appetite for uranium. All fantastic stuff. But what exactly happens to us non-scientists as we engage with the inquirers and observers and quantifiers of the world?

As I ask questions, sitting there at the table (anyone can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner at Enders Hall quite cheaply and with only 24-hour notice), often a scientist will restate the question in order to answer it more capably. It feels neither bossy nor condescending nor rigid, but more like something that simply must be done to effectuate better discourse. It’s humbling but not necessarily in a bad way. What does it feel like? Sort of like a cross between a slightly painful chiropractic adjustment and being given the pitch from a pitch pipe.

Early in the tour, our guide pulls out a drawer of native bees (smaller than the European honeybee, and non-honey-storing) so we can see the hundreds upon hundreds of specimens gathered and pinned in with miniscule rods and tagged with miniscule bar codes. I’m riveted by the gridded display. It’s captivating! There are those who – by the grace of god and with not without a good dose of compulsion — catalogue, organize, compare, chronicle, and exhibit. Not to mention experiment and hypothesize.

I begin to see the nature of my own non-scientific brain, its loosey-goosey aspects, its stretchy, lazy and seemingly not-so-compulsive qualities. Is it out of shape? In a different kind of shape? Messy? Does it bulge in parts and atrophy in others? Because what I’m thinking about all of a sudden after seeing the sheet of micro-bees is Robinson Crusoe and Kepler and Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Then I start thinking about what the world would feel like left un-barcoded, uncategorized, simply… whole. That stretchy part of my brain stretches a little. Lazy, indulgent stretching? Maybe. All I know is the world feels huge and tiny and exceedingly complex and yet glued together by some kind of simple super-unifying force. Miraculous!

Eventually, though, the bi-polar nature of an undisciplined mind comes calling: hey, why is it I know so little not only about the physical sciences but the natural sciences as well? And what it is we’re supposed to know in life? And how are we even supposed to know what we are supposed to know? Certainly, one current mode of thinking is that it’s not so much about being encyclopedic in our knowledge but knowing how to access information. I don’t know. Personally, I’d like a little more Brittanica with my Google. I’d like a little more 19th century education with my 20th and 21st. Maybe more wisdom with my information.

Later that night, thinking of the specimen drawers again, the scanning microscope, the deep freezers, the stark offices, the field-work boots and bibs and tools all lined up and everything in good order in the repurposed ghost town buildings of Gothic, I give thanks for these scientists. One thing we’ve been told by our guide, one thing that has shifted the tectonic plates of our brains just slightly, is that only 1 of the 10 cells in our bodies is human. We may house 10 trillion human cells, but we also host 100 trillion bacteria. Thus, as walking, talking, metabolizing, sentient micriobiomes, it would behoove us to view ourselves as the gardens we are. We are gardens: that is what he said.

Why does this knowledge feel so big? Because it means that in our bodies, if not our spirits, we are not alone. We are nothing if not a part of, connected, in relation to. And even a lazy, non-science-brained garden can nurture such a potent little seed.

 

 

 

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