Thursday, January 1, 2009

Science Made Me Skinny

Having biologists for parents has its ups and downs. One advantage is that at a young age you are instilled with an inherent curiosity about the environment in which you life. One disadvantage is that you are often dealing with some vile substance under sickening circumstances. My parents were attentive students in college, and the class from which they learned the most was probably parasitology.

Tapeworms, leeches and other parasites are fascinating little creatures, and from a very young age we were taught what sort of organisms dwell in undercooked meats. My father, while happily downing a steak, explained how a little cyst hiding in the meat would soon take up residence in my muscles and expand from there. Their knowledge rubbed off quickly on us, so the local Toastmasters Junior club had to be the only group to have been subjected to a rather informative and graphic speech about the reproductive habits and lifecycle of the guinea worm. My audience was particularly enthralled when I explained that the best way to remove the often 3 foot worms from one’s limbs was to slowly roll the worm up on a pencil. The rousing applause to this fascinating presentation was so moving that my next speech was about the joy of playing chess.

When I was four I was already collecting frog, salamander and toad eggs. It became a daily summer ritual to run about the streams every afternoon before Bernie (our St. Bernard) would slop about the pools, eating some of the eggs and disturbing most of the others. The poor dog never quite recognized that the goo in her mouth was not her own drool. That summer I also came across a large clutch of snapping turtle eggs. With out care, nearly all of them hatched and I kindly released them into my neighbor’s pond. Several years later I recall overhearing him complain that his ducklings kept getting eaten due the overpopulation of “those darned snappers” in is crowded little ponds. I kept my mouth shut.

We first acquired honeybees when I was about six. They were remarkable creatures, not only with a highly organized hierarchy of workers, drones, and a queen, but also constructing their hives and combs with geometrical perfection. These bees were splendid insects, flourishing the first year in their hives and consistently dying out the next. For reasons unexplained at the time, we could not keep any hive alive for longer than a year. Between my mother backing our old station wagon over one hive, bee parasites, and harsh winders, they never had a chance. Only once did we harvest honey from a hive, and the stupid bees protested the theft of the fruits of their labor by proceeding to die out soon thereafter.

When my sister and I were of school age, my parents did their best to instill us with a solid understanding of scientific theory. Through work on a science project for school, I learned at ten that the spores from Lycopodium are extremely flammable; so flammable in fact that the Chinese used them for centuries to propel their fireworks. Having ready access to a substance essentially equivalent to gunpowder provided hours of cheap entertainment, behind my mother’s back. Perhaps she knew all along though, because years later after hearing a sonic boom, however, she assumed automatically that I had blown something up. My fascination with Lycopodia soon ended, however, as the difficulty of harvesting the spores from thousands of plants met up with my discovery that I was allergic to them as well.

My parents’ further attempts to familiarize us with the process of forming and then testing hypotheses comprised some of the most unpleasant times of my life. One such project was testing what animal’s manure functioned best as a plant fertilizer. The task of obtaining these fecal samples was eased somewhat by our ownership of Noah’s Ark and nearly all its occupants. Collecting the samples, however, was not a treat, and at times quite difficult. IT was important to gather a fresh sample from our subjects: a goat, out pig, the pony, some chickens, the dog, and even the cat. The goats and pigs were sometimes easy, yet other times we had to wait long stretches watching the stupid animal’s backside wishing for a bowel movement. It was probably just as well that nobody could see our house from the state road, since watching a child chase after a got with a specimen jar in his hands had to be a most disturbing site. The chickens were the easiest study, since the appeared to defecate on demand. The cat was an entirely different matter. As anyone with a feline understands, cats to not like people – especially impatient children – following them around while they attempt to do their business. I wasted many an hour observing my cat glaring at me in disgust as the tried in vain to lose me in the bushes.

What was the outcome of this venture? I learned that chicken manure kills plants. I cannot for the life of me remember what actually helped the plants grow, since my memory is so heavily fogged with the images of collecting fresh dung. I preformed this project when I was 11 years old, and as a result of my research my appetite dropped sharply. It was at this time that I also began to lose my baby fat; I often wonder if there was a relationship between the two events.

When I was a teenager I performed a test to see what brand of ZipLock Baggies best held in odors. Scientists have known for years that humans have an underdeveloped sense of smell compared to most members of the animal kingdom. So with this knowledge in mind, I filled bags with samples of fox urine (which I, thankfully, did not have to collect) and sought the assistance of a neighbor’s scrawny hunting dogs. The idea was that the dogs would use their keen olfactory skills to lead me to the baggie that held odors the least efficiently. I’m not sure which was more rancid: the fox urine or the dogs themselves. As was the case with the dung project, the findings of my research were seared out of my synapses; this time by choking wafts of fox urine.

It has to be my parents’ fault that when I first came to college I spent days marveling over the startling realization that male birds to not have penises. My quest for more information regarding their mating behaviors was quickly stifled, however, by my roommate’s suggestion that bird genitalia was not a topic of general interest and should be therefore omitted from further conversations.

It is also to my mother and father’s credit that my siblings and me can walk through the woods and eat vegetation without fear of sickness, often to the chagrin of our friends. There was many a weekend that we obediently trooped after my father, whose only tool was a pair of clippers hooked to his belt. The belt, I might add, was often worn over top of the bib overalls. With his aid the four of us quickly learned what plants are edible, at what stage they may be eaten, and what kind of nutritional content they offered. This knowledge may be extremely valuable at some point in my life, and I am quite thankful for my parent’s loving instruction. I still must be careful, however, as my father admonished on many an occasion, the hardest part of eating wild vegetation is finding the plants that our animals had not defecated on.

Apart from a wide array of unusual edible plants in our area, we had also several acres of wild blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, black and red raspberries, and even an odd peach and apple tree. Once our clever dog learned that these fruits were edible, we were often left fighting with her for the blueberries. She would flow down in a spot and proceed to munch every ripe and underripe berry around her. Her gaping maw was of such great size that more leaves and flowers entered than berries, but she apparently still tasted them nonetheless. For years she never pulled apples or peaches off the trees, but one summer she inevitably discovered that those still attached to the trees were far tastier than those on the ground. Our yield diminished from that day forth. Bernie also haunted our garden, and between her snatching gourds and pumpkins and groundhogs devouring our corn, we never got out of it much more than peas (which she didn’t even bother to trample).

My ambitious concluded one year that it would be a marvelous idea were we to begin to grow all sorts of fruit trees. He felt it necessary to plant domestic apples, peaches, and even a large grape arbor. We did this over the course of a couple years, but met with little success. I often thought our pet animals to be of little value; eating our food and messing in our house, and these wretched plants turned out to be of essentially no greater function. Despite the loving care of two plant biologists, all our apple trees we so very ignorant that 90% never yielded a single fruit. They became little more than pets. The grapes were no better, most of them producing lovely foliage but no grapes. The peaches undoubtedly communicated with the honeybees, and protesting our attempts to make them do anything, they died. It wasn’t that we were poor botanists or horticulturists, but rather that our stupid plants were in some way retarded. So, like our intellectually challenged animals, they were pets. And what became of those 10% of the apple trees that DID produce fruit? Well, our fine dog ate the lower apples and we fought with yellow jackets for the higher specimens, which were often small, stunted, or severely disfigured.

The only disagreement that I ever found between my parents regarding our scientific education was the handling of spiders. My mother was quite fond of them and permitted them to dwell in the house; and some days I even caught her conversing with these visitors on our ceiling. She required them, however, to be under one inch in diameter and nonpoisonous. All violators were squashed or evicted. This irritated my father no end. I’m unsure where he acquired the dislike, but he very much resented sharing his residence with spiders. He killed all the found, so my mother and I took to making sure our charges were out of his view. Some children sneak around their father’s back to avoid doing chores. I, on the other hand, sneaked around to shelter spiders. Years later in college I still took the time to feed and converse with the spiders inhabiting my bathroom. I don’t know where they came from, but they sure did enjoy the ants that also infested the apartment.

I’m still trying to decide if my rather unusual scientific background has helped me or not. I very much enjoy knowing how nature works, but I’m continuously learning how little people want to know about it. They are happy to see how pretty things are, uninterested in the daily range of a honeybee, uncaring how some animal’s feces actually strategically located the vegetation they now admire. Some day they’ll need me, I maintain, when I’m the only person around who knows how to remove the worms from their legs.

Copyright © 2001, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Goat manure is the best, hands down. Chicken manure needs to sit for a while and lose its potency before it can be used as fertilizer. (Since birds have only one type of excrement - runny poop - it contains all the free radicals and ammonium compounds and whatnot that are in urine, plus the good stuff. The typical urine components eventually leech out; what is left is a superior fertilizer.)