Monthly Archives: July 2011

Crow poems

A poem found within the pages of the beautiful and compact prose pieces of Creaturely and Other Essays, by Devin Johnston. The poem “Crows in Afternoon Sunlight,” however, comes from the Australian poet Robert Adamson. Of Adamson, the following has been said.

Robert Adamson is one of the truly great poets of place and deep meditation. […] From Bob Dylan to Wallace Stevens, from Arthur Rimbaud to Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Shelley to Zukovsky, Adamson winds a path through the abyssal forest of symbols to the natural world, driving Symbolism over the edge into the darkness of a nihilism still able to experience, praise, savour and celebrate the world in all its impossibility and presence.

“Crows in Afternoon sunlight” does indeed wind.

How close can a human get to a crow,
how much do we know about them?
It’s good to know we’ll never read their brains,
never know what it means to be a crow.

All those crow poems are about poets —
none of them get inside the crow’s head,
preen or rustle, let alone fly on crow wings.

No one knows what it is to sing crow song.

Five crows hop and stand around
the fish I have left for them on the wharf.
If I move their eyes follow me, I stand still
and they pick up a fish, test its weight.

They ruffle their feather manes and shine.

These black bird shapes outlined by the light.
Behind them, the river flowing out,
the light changing, soon it will be night

and they will be gone. Before that
I praise crows.


Visualizing Plasmodium

Many say the human malaria parasites, five species of the genus Plasmodium, are host to an inherently complex and complicated life cycle. When reading a description of the various stages of the protozoan’s life, this would certainly appear the truth—each form is visually different; home to detailed mechanisms of transformation; subject to alien terminologies, words ending in –cyte, processes like schizogony.

Merozoites of Plasmodium infecting red blood cells. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

As an example, find below a description of the lives of Plasmodium, found in a 2010 review focusing on the history of how the parasite, its transmission via the mosquito vector, and its pathogenesis were discovered.

Infection begins when (1) sporozoites, the infective stages, are injected by a mosquito and are carried around the body until they invade liver hepatocytes where (2) they undergo a phase of asexual multiplication (exoerythrocytic schizogony) resulting in the production of many uninucleate merozoites. These merozoites flood out into the blood and invade red blood cells where (3) they initiate a second phase of asexual multiplication (erythrocytic schizogony) resulting in the production of about 8-16 merozoites which invade new red blood cells. This process is repeated almost indefinitely and is responsible for the disease, malaria. As the infection progresses, some young merozoites develop into male and female gametocytes that circulate in the peripheral blood until they are (4) taken up by a female anopheline mosquito when it feeds. Within the mosquito (5) the gametocytes mature into male and female gametes, fertilization occurs and a motile zygote (ookinete) is formed within the lumen of the mosquito gut, the beginning of a process known as sporogony. The ookinete penetrates the gut wall and becomes a conspicuous oocyst within which another phase of multiplication occurs resulting in the formation of sporozoites that migrate to the salivary glands of a mosquito and are injected when the mosquito feeds on a new host.

The process becomes somewhat clearer with the aid of the following simple cyclical diagram.

Life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite

But even then, there’s still mystique to the organism. We now know that sporozoites are the infective stage of Plasmodium, that they are injected into the human body by the mosquito’s proboscis, and that they become merozoites through exoerythrocytic schizogony in the liver, specifically in the hepatocyte cells.  We now know that these same merozoites invade red blood cells, the erythrocytes, and undergo another process of multiplication known as erythrocytic schizogony. We now know that the replication of merozoites continues in the erythrocytes, and that some of these develop into male and female gametocytes. We now know that these move throughout the bloodstream until they are taken up by another feeding mosquito, and that within the vector the gametocytes develop again into gametes, fertilize, and undergo sporogony, the process of ookinete development and the eventual production of new sporozoites, completing the circle.  But words like exoerythrocytic, ookinete, and schizogony are rather abstract—much in like the anthropological critique of popular reliance on statistics, the abstraction often obscures rather than illuminates form. As statistics seem to hide the individual, a voice, a face, a story, the technical description of Plasmodium‘s journey and fate leaves our imagination empty as to what a sporozoite actually looks like, if merozoites are larger or smaller than their life-history precursor, how the gametocytes move in the blood. In short, we can’t really picture Plasmodium. And if we can’t picture the organism, then all these processes, which are so detailed and meticulous in containing the What’s of each stage, become rather shallow. If we are told how photosynthesis works, but haven’t seen a leaf much less a chloroplast, knowing the process isn’t of much use. Even without considering this protozoa, it isn’t hard to imagine the conundrum of how this visualizing and understanding applies to microorganisms.

Luckily, we have researchers not only hard at work, but also committed to—in contrast to the popular saying—seeing the trees, not just the forest. The following video comes from DNAtube, a fantastic scientific video site, where you can find detailed visuals in motion of a range of biological processes and phenomena. Although the narrator of the video comments that the life cycle of Plasmodium is “very complex,” the visualization  asserts the opposite: the life of the organism is not inherently simple—it is complex is nature—but it can be displayed and explained in simple form, perhaps even in ways that exhibit beauty of sorts.

Alternative narratives to the discovery of Lyme disease

Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, was first isolated in 1982 by Willy Burgdorfer, Ph.D., a zoologist and microbiologist at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, MT. The following is a brief history of this groundbreaking discovery.

So begins the description of the medical discovery of Lyme disease from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An agency of the National Institutes of Health, NIAID conducts and supports basic and applied medical research on infectious and allergic diseases to increase scientific knowledge and advance methods of treatment and prevention. Set in the disciplines of microbiology and immunology, in recent years this work has focused on asthma, bioterrorism, and emerging infectious diseases. Lyme disease—in belonging to the latter category—has been a principal interest to the agency, the focus on which has been on understanding the mechanisms of the bacterial organism’s pathogenesis, its modes of transmission, and antibiotic therapy.

B. burgdorferi spirochete. Image courtesy of NUCEL International Integrative Medical Center

According to this state narrative, Lyme disease—a bacterial infection transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick—was discovered in 1975 when a team of researchers led by Dr. Allen Steere investigated why unusually large numbers of children were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut. In an early epidemiological report, Steere’s group examined the health status of 51 residents with the illness, characterized by ongoing swelling and pain in large joints. Published in 1977, the study argued the causative agent of the disease to be an unrecognized pathogen, possibly transmitted by an arthropod vector. The researchers found the disease to be highly complex, variable, and confusing, with some members of the cohort suffering from a short weeklong bout of illness while others experienced symptoms for months. When initial research found that 25% of residents with the illness developed an expanding red rash known in the medical literature as erythema migrans and that the majority of the towns’ cases were found in children living alongside wooded areas in the summer months, the team suggested the new disease could be related to the life cycle of ticks, particularly those of the Ixodes genus. With the assistance and expertise of Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist specializing in tick-borne bacterial transmission, the researchers pinpointed the black-legged tick as the previously mentioned vector. Then, in 1982, Burgdorfer successfully isolated Borrelia burgdorferi from patients with the illness, proving that the spirochete bacterium caused what came to be known in medical and lay circles as Lyme disease.

Adult female I. scapularis

This account of medical detection is not confined to only the NIAID and other government research agencies—it circulates as the most common narrative in the biological and medical literature (Reik Jr 1991; Christen 1994; Reid 1998; Steere 2001; Knisley & Johnson 2004; Meyerhoff 2009; Sterle & Stanek 2009). As part of an institutional narrative of biological science’s importance, the account not only mentions the actions of and exchanges between epidemiologists, physicians, entomologists, and bacteriologists, but also frames these actors as the sole and vital components of the discovery, recording the event within a certain framework of what is and is not important. What’s at stake in recording the past within a particular perspective is not a rejection of scientific materiality, but rather an illustration of how what is ignored in our records echoes what continues to remain absent in contemporary discussion. Anthropologist Ilana Feldman follows this notion with the comment,  “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitude in and towards the present.” Particular to the institutional memories created through state documents, Julie Taylor also notes the tensions implicit in certain modes of narrating the past. She writes that such documents inherently contain a politics of information, of including some parts of the past and excluding others: Continue reading

Wet specimens 2

Rana pipiens. BCFS-32. My gaze snaps away from the floor and wanders to a shelf of amphibians, to another dust-covered lid on a jar in the corner. The body of the northern leopard frog is upside-down, its hind legs and pseudo-webbed toes curled, twisted and arched in opposite directions. Unlike its vibrant green pigmentation in life, the frog’s skin is now an almost translucent white, a byproduct of the preservative alcohol. What remains of its lived color are the brown spots that pattern the creature’s back and legs. But this skin seems delicate, like thin paper, like gift-wrap. It is transparent enough to show the outlines of ribs and the blue tinge of organs—the lungs, the heart, the gut. The inner workings of the frog’s head are nearly visible too, exhibiting the full form of two gelatinous black eyes, the iris no longer its characteristic golden hue. From within its open mouth, I see more blue.

“Immanuel Kant”

Immanuel Kant

The philosophy of white blood cells:
this is self,
this is nonself.
The starry sky of nonself,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.
Immanuel Kant,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.

And he knows nothing about it,
he is only afraid of drafts.
And he knows nothing about it,
though this is the critique
of pure reason.

Deep inside.

Miroslav Holub

Wet specimens 1

[an excerpt description from a longer essay on voucher specimens in the Hudson River estuary]

Chelydra serpentina. BCFS-16. Like the other specimens here, these turtles are long dead, all five of them. Some were found at a railroad, others the consequences of an experiment. Parts of the labeling tag have been obscured by the 50 percent isopropenol–fixed bodies, but I can deduce the familiar beak-like jaws of these creatures. The latter part of their binomial nomenclature, serpentina, means “snake-like” in Latin, referring to the once mobile necks and heads before me. The shells of these baby snapping turtles are ridged, brown with yellowed stains. One of the reptiles, darker than the rest, is especially contorted. It’s tail and hind legs have twisted together from the preservation process and from the pressure of the other bodies. It is upside down, belly-up, and its right paw reaches upwards, protruding away from the rest of the body, toward the lid. The beak hangs open, its eyes bulging and dark. Underneath, another’s body is twisted too, like a poor man bent with tetanus. This one’s neck strains backwards, one claw stretching below the head, its nails extending in unnatural directions. The entire jar is a play on gravity, a hodgepodge of bodies, a distorted representation of a nest.

Are we sponges or technicians?

Somewhere in his journals Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pray and dig away long enough, and lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous.

This note, by Saul Bellows, a several National Book Award–winning Canadian-born Jewish American, brings to mind and contrasts a parable I read several years back by Italo Calvino. The brief tale comes at the end of his essay “Quickness,” one of the five lectures that compose the Italian author’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Although the preceding essay in the compilation, “Lightness,” is more well-known, especially for its connection with the Roman poet–natural philosopher Lucretius and both early and modern atomism, Calvino’s paraphrase of a Chinese fable, both in content and method, eloquently reduces the heart of the piece to a moment:

Among Chuan-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

The essay gravitates around Calvino’s concept of this economy of movement, this exact and instantaneous making of a world, and in doing so skips directly from and back into the writer’s notes on lightness and reducing weight from words, sentences, ideas. Along these lines, Calvino details the process of stripping a paragraph of its density in his Italian Folktales:

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