Who Was That Masked Naturalist?
Bowdoin College and McKay’s Public House in Bar Harbor are three hours apart by car. This week they were linked by science and nature, by Darwin and ravens, by two gifted biologists, by intelligent audiences and, in my case, by a couple of good burgers. I’m not much of a carnivore, but on these two winter nights, I was somehow drawn to the combination of meaty ideas and grilled beef. (Thumbs up, I might add, to the smoked gouda atop my burger at the Tavern at Brunswick Station, a short walk from the Bowdoin auditorium.)
Some people who haven’t been up here in Maine at this time of year seem to harbor the misconception that not much goes on between November and April in the state that calls itself Vacationland. Summer folks have departed, seasonal businesses have closed, black bears have gone into hibernation and so, they assume, have organizers of the many recreational, cultural and intellectual events that fill the July and August calendar. I wish those non-Mainers could have hopped into the back seat for the short drive to McKay’s with Pamelia and me to hear the lecture on evolution by Karen James, a visiting staff scientist (and Darwin expert) at the Mount Desert Island Biological Lab. Or joined us for the longer trip to Bowdoin to hear—and meet—Bernd Heinrich, the esteemed scientist, naturalist and author, discussing the behavior of ravens, on which he is probably the world’s foremost expert.
Karen’s talk was one in a series of “Science Cafe” events organized by the MDI Biological Lab, a globally-linked research center that enriches our area with a variety of science programs. The combination of the MDIBL, the world-famous Jackson Laboratory (which focuses on genetics), Acadia National Park (site of biological and environmental research) and the College of the Atlantic (which is particularly strong in marine studies) make this lovely island of 10,000 people a scientific powerhouse.
It may seem odd, in the 21st century, that a scientist in a country that deems itself the most advanced in the world would need to entitle a lecture, as Karen did, “Why Evolution Is True.” Unfortunately, even though evolution is taught in U.S. public schools and explained scientifically at respected institutions such as the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, and even though 150 years of painstaking research by millions of biologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, geneticists and other experts in all corners of the planet has found overwhelming physical proof that natural selection has been at work for billions of years—”The world is literally teeming with evidence of evolution,” as Karen put it in her lecture—and even though the decoding of genes over the last decade has provided what Karen calls “an astonishing verification” of evolution and the biological connection among all living species, a lot of Americans simply don’t believe in it. (Then again, according to a 2006 study reported in the journal Science, nearly half of Americans couldn’t give even a basic description of what DNA is.)
Karen handled the whole subject with reason, humor and intellectual passion. In dealing with a topic that so often generates heat, she instead filled the evening with light—that is, illumination. And that’s why taking a couple of hours to go to a science or nature talk is so worthwhile. You leave feeling energized, with a deeper understanding of the world around you. If you’re in the Bar Harbor area, I should add, you might want to drop by McKay’s for the next Science Cafe, on March 21, a talk by Kyuson Yun of the Jackson Laboratory on the lastest in cancer stem-cell research.
A Night With Bernd Heinrich
First impressions linger. I’ll always remember walking through the fragrant, pine-filled Bowdoin campus in the dark, trying not to slip on the icy walkway as I searched for the lecture hall. I’d never before visited the alma mater of such luminaries as writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, President Franklin Pierce, adventurer Robert Peary (whose discovery of the North Pole led the college to choose white as its school color and call its sports teams the Polar Bears), former Maine Senator George Mitchell and marathon great Joan Benoit. I felt excited but also somewhat guilty. Because our aging dog, Wooster, was having hind leg problems after being cooped up in the car for too long, Pamelia—who was as eager as I to see Bowdoin and hear Bernd Heinrich’s talk—had volunteered to stay back in the hotel room with her. An act of love.
I won’t give you Bernd’s whole bio here. You’ll be reading more about him on the blog (and at The Naturalist’s Notebook) later this year. Suffice it to say that besides being a world-class scientist, author and ultramarathoner (and an awfully good artist who does the illustrations for his books), he is, as one of his friends puts it, “smart as a whip, with a sly sense of humor, self-effacing, confident, fun and optimistic…one of the most authentically himself sort of animals one could meet.” Bernd, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, spends countless hours conducting field research in the woods near his cabin in rural western Maine. His writings are detailed and rich. If you read his books Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven—and you should—you’ll feel as though you’ve spent many days with him in those woods, sometimes dragging animal carcasses through hip-deep snow to a spot where ravens might feed on them, other times hiding in a homemade blind to sit for hours and wait for a sighting.
But since I’m talking more about ravens than about Bernd in this blog post, let me do what Bernd did: Turn on the slide projector and let you see some of what he has observed.
These photos only hint at the fascinating world of ravens that Bernd described to us. If you’re lucky enough to be able to study one of these remarkable birds in the wild, remember that it will surely be studying you at the same time. As Bernd put it, “Ravens are pretty good at figuring everyone out.”
The Tick-Proof Shirt?
Because Bowdoin is just a few minutes from Freeport, we stopped briefly at L.L. Bean on the way home and bought a few pieces of clothing. Later, to my surprise (I’m not a very attentive clothing shopper) I found a tag on one of my new shirts that informed me that the garment had been treated with something called Insect Shield. According to the tag, Insect Shield “repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers and midges (no-see-ums)” and “the active ingredient is a man-made version of a natural insect repellent found in certain types of chrysanthemum plants.”
That active ingredient turns out to be permethrin, an insecticide that is widely used in agriculture. It’s not without controversy—it’s a neurotoxin that can kill bees along with other insects. Having had two bouts with Lyme Disease over the last 15 years, I’m happy to be able to fend off deer ticks, though I’m not sure whether I actually feel good about wearing a pesticide shirt. Have any of you tried one? Do they work?
Answers to the Last Puzzlers
1) Here are the unscrambled words from nature, science and art:
a) whoads = shadow
b) yenger = energy
c) verna = raven
d) ponteale = antelope
2) The U.S. Secretary of the Interior (who oversees the National Park System) is Ken Salazar. Of the other possible answers I gave you, Gale Ann Norton was Interior Secretary under George W. Bush, Arne Duncan is the current Education Secretary and Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
1) More words to unscramble. Again, these come from the worlds of nature, science and art:
2) How did the dragonfly get its name?
a) From a Chinese legend in which an insect kills a dragon that is attacking a town.
b) From a Polynesian dance in which performers wore costumes with large wings.
c) From a Romanian folktale about a horse that the devil turned into a giant fly known as the Devil’s Fly. The Romanian word for devil is drac, which also means dragon, and the second meaning eventually was applied to the insect.