Bees, and why you need to care about them


I have been hearing about colony collapse disorder since the mid-1980s, when I lived in Tunisia and actually knew some beekeepers. Their hives were dying, and they had no idea why it was happening.



It’s now a worldwide problem. The European Union is voting on the subject soon, and I hope they vote sensibly.



Do you realize that our crops – our food sources – almost entirely depend on bees? Bees are the key to pollination. We farm bees just as we farm crops like corn and beans, but the bees are not so reliable anymore, because of this damned colony collapse disorder.



It may be a fungus. It may be the overuse of certain insecticides. It may be some mysterious illness. It may be Gaia’s revenge on mankind.



At any rate, the European Union is taking steps by banning certain pesticides which seem to be implicated in the colony collapses. An English friend of mine, Oma, recently posted a blog about the movement to ban these pesticides.



I know what you’re thinking: Who cares about bees?



Answer: if you don’t care about bees, you’d better change your mind, and fast.



You can follow this link to sign an American petition to ban certain chemicals connected to colony collapse disorder.



Please sign.



Neanderthal DNA

neanderthal, the online DNA-analysis company, came back to us with information on our Neanderthal descent. Mine is 2.6 percent; Partner’s is 2.8 percent.

There’s been lots of disagreement about our Neanderthal cousins. They were shorter than us and almost certainly stronger, with heavy brow ridges, and maybe larger brains. But Homo sapiens sapiens somehow swamped them, and now they’re gone.

Except that our H. sapiens sapiens ancestors (evidently) interbred with them.

The Neanderthal genome has been recovered from fossils and compared to the modern human genome. Result: most people of European and Asian descent have at least one percent Neanderthal DNA; some have as much as four percent. (People of pure African descent have none at all, or nearly none.)

It’s fun to think about our caveman ancestry. I even bought the t-shirts that 23andMe offered, with a cute Fred Flintstone-type caveman depicted on them, and Partner’s and my respective percentages printed alongside.

But maybe I’m proud of my Homo sapiens sapiens ancestry too. Maybe I’m proud of all my ancestors, unicellular and multicellular, mammalian and primate. They all had one thing in common: they reproduced, and their offspring lived long enough to reproduce also.

I have not had children in my lifetime, and almost certainly never will. My genome (such as it is) will be lost. But hopefully my nephews and nieces will manage to carry on the odd and unique messages in our family DNA.

I feel like a caveman, thinking about a future I won’t share.

But maybe – just maybe – some fragment of my family inheritance will survive in that future.

Here’s hoping.

Colonel Chris Hadfield

chris hadfield

When I was a kid, astronauts – in the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo missions – were all over television. You couldn’t escape them. They were always up in space, on endless dull missions, orbiting and spacewalking, and they pre-empted all my favorite shows.



This was lovely, and very exciting. But, god love them, they were so deadly dull. None of the astronauts had any personality to speak of; they were all big average-looking white men in puffy space suits. Later – much later – we found that some of them had personalities: Michael Collins could write well, and Alan Bean could paint, and Edgar Mitchell had interestingly creative ideas about spirituality and humanity and the Universe.



But that was later: much much later. At the time, in the 1960s and 70s, they were all just names and faces. NASA scrubbed all the personality out of them.



Well, it’s much later now.



Over our heads now orbits the International Space Station, crewed by Russians and Americans and – OMG! – Canadians. One particular Canadian, Chris Hadfield, has become an Internet celebrity. How? He takes pictures. Like this:



And this:


hadfield 2

And this:




He sings with children on Earth (especially in Canada). He’s excited about being in space, and he enjoys it, and he communicates his enjoyment to us on earth.



Most recently, just before his return to Earth, he lip-synched a (slightly rewritten) cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” complete with zero-G guitar.



I wish those repressed/oppressed 1960s astronauts had been given the freedom to express themselves, the way Chris Hadfield is expressing himself right now. I’d have been a lot more involved, and excited.






There’s a tree down the street from our apartment building that I always marvel at. It’s a honey locust, which is common enough around here – they plant it as a shade tree frequently on the East Side of Providence.



But this one – this one! – has huge dangerous-looking thorns sticking out of its trunk!



Partner pointed it out to me several years ago. “What the hell is this thing?” he said.



Well, I looked it up. Honey locusts, which are sweet and gentle as city trees, were originally very nastily thorny. They were bred out of it, but now and then they remember.



This is called “atavism”: the reversion to an earlier or more primitive form.



Partner and I did the 23andMe thing, which told us that we had some Neanderthal DNA (but not very much).



I see, however, that some people on line have lots more Neanderthal DNA than we do.



And, on a daily basis, I see a world full of short stocky people with pronounced brow ridges.





Goldendale, Washington


Goldendale is a town in Washington state, in Klickitat County not far north of the Columbia River. The sign at the city limits used to read like this (maybe it still does):







When we made our yearly visits to my my paternal grandmother, back in the 1960s and 1970s, Goldendale was the last real town we passed through before we arrived at her house. We usually stopped for a burger. I wish I could remember the name of the burger place, because it was excellent.



Partner and I have passed through Goldendale a few times over the past fifteen years. It’s bigger than I remember, but I see from Wikipedia that it has less than four thousand residents, so it’s still pretty small.



In June 1918, astronomers William Campbell and Heber Curtis came to Goldendale to view a solar eclipse. This was an especially important eclipse, because Einstein’s theories predicted that the light of stars close to the sun would be deflected slightly, and everyone wanted to see whether or not it was true.



The Goldendale data (which wasn’t terrific) did not confirm Einstein’s theories. Luckily, other viewings over the next few years confirmed that Einstein was correct.



But Goldendale turns out to be a great place to have an observatory. The air is clear, and the weather is mostly cloudless. There’s a permanent observatory there now, in its own state park.



And here’s the thing: my father (who was six years old at the time) was only a few miles away from Campbell and Curtis, on his parents’ ranch, as Campbell and Curtis performed their observations.



The world is a very small place after all.


Snow, glaciers, and the Elizabeth Islands

cape cod elizabeth islands

We here in Rhode Island had a mini-blizzard in the middle of February, which dumped two feet of snow. A lot of it melted right away. But some of it remained, in big chunks and drifts on the roadside.



It melts, bit by bit, and the streets and sidewalks get wider and wider, thank God.



Have you ever noticed what happens when mounded snow melts? It almost always leaves debris behind, like this:







Flashback to the last Ice Age: the glaciers pushed all kinds of debris (rocks, etc.) out to their limits, and then they receded.



What did they leave behind?



Why, Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands!






Cape Cod and the Elizabeths are the fringe of debris  – the “terminal moraine” – left behind by the last glaciers.



The last Ice Age left behind all kinds of debris in southern New England: the teardrop-shaped islands in Boston Harbor, the big chunks of stone dropped at random throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut and Rhode Island (“glacial erratics”, and (most especially) the line of debris that created the ridges of Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands.



Debris. What a terrible word. Let’s just call it “landscaping.”


Eagles eating seagulls; or, the Circle of Life

eagles eating seagulls

Nature is fun, isn’t it, kids? And so lovely! You’ve got your bunnies, and pretty flowers, and dear little deer prancing through the woods.

Also you’ve got animals eating one another.

From a recent Sierra Club email:

This Sunday morning we’ll be going to Swan Point Cemetery on the East Side of Providence for our “Eagles Eating Seagulls” outing. Swan Point is one of the best birding spots in Rhode Island and along with our regular winter feathered friends, we could be fortunate to see some rare finches that have come into the area this winter and hopefully the bald eagles that regularly come down to hunt along the Seekonk River. We are lucky to have locally renowned environmentalist Greg Gerritt to lead the outing.

Yes, we will be lucky to have Greg Gerritt to lead the outing. Luckier than a few seagulls I can think of.

Now, mind you, the Swan Point Cemetery is actually very lovely; it’s very old, and looks out over the Seekonk River. But there’s something peculiarly ironic about going to a cemetery to watch bald eagles rend and devour seagulls.

I never liked seagulls much. They’re big and fat, generally – they eat garbage, and seem to thrive on it – and are entirely appetite-driven. Also, they seem mentally challenged at times. More than once I’ve seen them perch near a person sitting on the ground and sneak up on them, as if they’re going to mess them up and take their lunch.

They are menaces in outdoor restaurants, especially in Rhode Island, especially in summertime; they land on your table and stare at your food.

But they don’t deserve to be ripped up by bald eagles, American national bird or not.

I’m thinking about going vegetarian. How about you?


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