In Irene's aftermath

The sandpiper did the unthinkable--it strolled. Then stopped. Then sat at the edge of the ocean. I was sitting a yard or so behind it. It did not matter. This bird is done.

Hurricanes are exhausting.


We're more intricately tied to nature than we care to admit. We do a pretty good job denying death and denying age, our little pleasure machines adept at creating the illusion of a perpetually orderly universe.

I write out a word--say "maple"--and the branch I swung from as a child still feels as lithe in my hands, though that branch turned brittle and broke decades ago, its essence long turned back to carbon dioxide and water, gone long before the most recent hurricane, but still vivid in a word.

I do not know how much fear a sandpiper feels sitting exhausted by the edge of the Atlantic, a sandpiper that may only exist now as a word--"sandpiper"--forever etched in my brain, "forever" itself a human conceit. It's carcass now lies just below the tide line, nibbled on by crabs and snails.

When we teach science, we must be wary of our worship of our words, our models, our abstract representations which become more real than the ground under our feet.

The point of science is just that--to look at the ground beneath our feet, for whatever it is, as it is, or as best we can tell what that is is.

If our feet leave the ground, and we chase our conceits instead of the dirt, we lose a chance at something bigger. Scientists know this. So do good poets, of course. Neither get a fair hearing in schools.

We spend so much time deflecting what's true we lose our grip on what matters.

There are a lot of ways to get there--John Steinbeck was a better observer than I'll ever be. The point of biology is not to learn vocabulary any more than the point of reading Steinbeck is to learn sentence structure. The point is to get to what matters.

You might see it in the fading light of a late August sunset a day after a hurricane watching a sand piper rest its weary body on the wet sand. You might hear it in the dying voice of Johnny Cash singing "Hurt." You might smell it in the decay of an early September breeze.

You'll know when you get there.

Your students will, too.

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