intense feline scrutiny:
a murder of crows squabbles over bugs
beneath new snow, under old Ponderosa—
intense feline scrutiny:
a murder of crows squabbles over bugs
beneath new snow, under old Ponderosa—
Notes to self:
We are stretching our legs from our van ride back to the Thai border through seemingly endless, lush jungle and verdant rice paddies. Despite their tiredness, my eyes feel contented in a way they rarely do; even on a cloudy day, there is no dull color in this strikingly beautiful, oppressed land north of the border. We are returning from an afternoon boat ride along a placid section of the Mekong River, brown and turgid from recent rains. (Monsoon season is near.)
This morning, Lao officials at the border crossing exude hostility toward the three Westerners in our group (me, my wife, and our friend Edlin). We are only able to enter Laos at all by being in silent and submissive tow of local area Thais, who persuade and obtain a price on our behalf. It is a lot of money; we pay. I am compelled to surreptitiously peek my point-and-shoot from my jacket pocket and snap a few pictures of the comically authoritarian border compound. It seems absurdly out of place to me, but I soon learn this is real life for the people here. We had already been warned to keep cameras well hidden, so my wife quickly admonishes me for being reckless.
One of our necessarily few stops along the road is this market, large enough to swallow us in relative anonymity, noisy with garrulous, haggling customers and a tinny radio blaring from some hidden place. Tables are full with fruits and vegetables, most of which I cannot even recognize, much less name. We are strangers, small, incongruous. I wander, senses saturated. Somewhere in the midst of this mélange of colors and shapes, I spy a table that seems odd and walk over to it.
Several richly colored brown hexagonal cells sit empty. These intermittently follow the curved periphery of a spiral assemblage that fills most of a table improvised of unfolded pages of recent newspapers, in colorful Laotian script, atop layers of flattened old cardboard boxes, and supported by mud-crusted, faded white and blue plastic milk crates regimentally stacked two high. From the side, I can see that the insects had built up these paper cells layer by layer, in alternating colors of light and dark brown wood particles. Two different tree barks, I presume. But why did the builders alternate layers across the hive, like sedimentary rock formations? It must have taken some time to finish this repetitive, dull, but necessary task.
Edlin (not his real name) appears and pulls my elbow, insistent. “Come, you have to see this.” Edlin is German, with a big German nose. His new bride is Thai. We’ve all been friends for several years back home in the U.S., where Edlin and she are naturalized citizens. She has the small, button nose typical, she says, of most Thai people. Indeed, among her relatives and childhood friends in Udan Thani, her husband’s much envied, magnificent nose is the first feature they cannot help but stare at. Not his white skin, his odd clothing, the strange American speech, or his funny mannerisms. When they meet him, their children, being delightfully uninhibited as are children everywhere, gape and point and giggle. At his magnificent nose. This amuses but embarrasses Edlin, who is already particularly self conscious about his nose. But in Thailand, where Thais are self conscious about their noses, he is genuinely, greatly admired. For his magnificent Teutonic nose. His face turned red when he told me this.
The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the largest hornet in the world, with a body length of two inches and a wing span of three. Their wings seem too small to lift such girth, much less propel it through the air at twenty-five miles per hour. No human can outrun an angry Asian giant hornet. Normally, they are not particularly aggressive toward us. But these armored, yellow and black striped killing machines are furious predators of other insects—mantises, other hornets, and especially honey bees—which they efficiently dispatch by severing heads with their proportionately large mandibles. Their victims stand no chance of escaping or surviving an attack.
The partial nest I’d been looking at is massive, that piece alone nursery to four or five hundred incipient little monsters. (I did a quick count and estimate.) Later, I learn that this is but one of a dozen or so layers, like floors of a tenement building, that constitute the typical nest. As I’m being pulled away, and not for the first time this trip, I wonder how the dirt-poor employees of this roadside open-air market, or the people from which they bought this disc of horrors, managed to subdue and take the fortress intact—and at what cost.
Apparently, hornet grubs are a delicacy in Southeast Asia. I am normally game to try things strange to me, but not even I am the least bit interested in popping one of these in my mouth. (Perhaps my lunch of spicy shrimp salad—live shrimp salad—aboard the riverboat is exerting a delayed influence.) With their wormlike body segments, these emerging creatures look like large—very large—stubby white maggots with disproportionately small orange button heads at their tips. Their translucent skin glistens, shiny clean; I don’t know why this surprises me. Maybe grubs are supposed to be grubby.
Most of the cells are occupied, lidded with paper-thin, white segmented domes. Some of the domes are bulging, while others have burst. Larvae, large as my thumb, poke half out of their cells, writhing, pulsing, blindly nodding to attract attention and a meal that will never come. Even for a bug enthusiast, up close it is a quease-inducing sight. I am the only one of our party of ten that is captivated, the others having quickly dispersed to find something—perhaps anything—else to ogle.
I follow Edlin through a confusing maze of narrow aisles and animated customers to a table in one corner under the large, corrugated-tin canopy. Along the way we pass a battered analog radio (so that’s where it is!) blaring Western pop music. I am immediately lost, so I am glad he knows where he is going.
We arrive. An old woman with gray hair sits on a stool behind the table. I am drawn to her dulled eyes, framed in wrinkles and leathery skin. She seems tired, weary, as does her stool, as does everything else we’ve seen in Laos—cars, fences, roadside businesses, houses and shacks, rafts on the river. (Oddly, the roads are in surprising good shape.) I imagine hers is the weariness of lifelong factory workers drudging their way through endless days at the same unchanging, mind-numbing task. But it is not that. This is how life is here, a culture stuck in a dreary bygone decade. Much of this is likely our—America’s—fault. It is tremendously saddening. I force myself to pay attention. On the table are a dozen or so 750ml bottles of a pretty, dark amber-colored liquid, presumably alcoholic.
Despite being proficient killers, these hornets do not eat their prey. Instead, they carry the massacred back to the nest. There, they chew up the bodies and make a paste with their saliva, which they feed to their larvae. In turn, the larvae secret an amino acid cocktail which the adults feed on, and from which they derive their manic energy and exceptional stamina.
Now I understand Edlin’s excitement. Floating in the top quarter volume of each bottle are drowned Asian giant hornets. The woman has been stuffing bottles of arrak, by bare hand, with groggy live hornets. The amber color has been leached from the hornets by the alcohol, which a label tells me is 45 percent by volume. The soon to be drownees drag slowly about on the table. I think of stingers, and angry wasps, my imagination (I learn later) falling far short. I don’t smell smoke, so again I wonder how they were subdued, and how long this stupor will last. She could probably tell me, but our translator, Edlin’s wife, is nowhere in sight.
V. mandarinia is a forest floor dweller, so it pays to be observant when tromping about in hornet territory. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin. It can dissolve flesh, leaving behind ghastly craters of destruction. Stings from this hornet are extremely painful. If you are not allergic, a jab or two with their quarter-inch stinger will not kill you. But thirty or more injections will induce anaphylactic shock and even multiple organ failure, landing you in the hospital—if you are lucky enough to be within range of one. The unlucky few are destined for a morgue.
She gestures for us to try a sample. That concentration of ethanol will have killed any bacteria or viruses that had hitched a ride, so I think, why not? Like many of the strange things we’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, the texture is surprisingly complex, vivid, and enjoyable. After a brief pantomimed conversation (we’re getting pretty good at this), we pay for two bottles with the Thai baht equivalent of just a few American dollars. Our respective senses of exploration now fulfilled, Edlin and I navigate the muddy puddles and make our way back to the van.
We get back to Udan Thani and our hotel room late that night, having begged off kind Thai uncles imploring us to an evening of spicy street vendor food, noise, traffic, incomprehensible chatter, and smells of questionable origin vying for olfactory supremacy. I pull the bottle of drowned amber fury from its worn white plastic bag and set it on our room’s little entryway table, on top of a dilapidated pad of paper bearing the hotel’s faded red letterhead. It is only then that I realize the woman had not corked the bottles. It will be impossible to get this home in our luggage. Neither will it be possible for me to drink even a substantial part of this exotic potion in our short remaining time here. Edlin and I commiserate over our predicament the next day. Our spouses are not overly sympathetic.
The evening looks promising.
Transparent air, crystalline blue—emblematic of Flagstaff even in summer—has soothed my soul since childhood. “I can see for miles and miles…” spins in my head, unbidden, as I walk a short patch of worn asphalt, dull gray and pitted from winter’s attacks. Dark green Ponderosa forest broods to the horizon, turning black as the light dims and the usefulness of my retinal color sensors fades. Thin, dry air is a poor thermal insulator, so it chills rapidly after sunset. I zip my jacket.
Ritual scan of the sky, projecting ahead several hours: gauging the night’s weather and observing conditions is an habitual game. I occasionally misjudge, but not tonight. The door clacks shut behind me. I know my keys are in my pocket, but I check anyway. I aim toward the chipped, institutional-turquoise railing in front of the dome. Cirrus lie low in the southwest, painted grunge by twilight and distance (thirty, forty miles). These will likely keep to their remove and not interfere. I pretend to decree it so.
As I shuffle southwest, my face parts the breeze. My felt hat stays on my head, unassisted. I’ve no need to glance at our rooftop weather station’s wind vane or anemometer. It should be a good night, the air clinging to the forest laid out before me as it flows, laminar and unturbulent, lifting with the ridge upon which we root and gliding smoothly overhead. Trudy, our night observer, should get one arcsecond seeing at the 61-inch telescope, perched on its massive concrete pedestal three stories up. It is the world’s most precise star measuring engine. Down here at the parking lot, the air will be more agitated. I’ll see two arcseconds, maybe a bit less, at the 51-inch telescope which squats inside a dome off the edge of the cooling asphalt. The dome resembles R2D2 from Star Wars.
“Seeing” is astronomer jargon for what our roiling atmosphere does to starlight, pushing and shoving it, forcing it to wiggle erratically in random directions as cells of turbulent air, refractive indexes varying slightly from their neighbors, scurry across our line of sight. These pockets of air, fleeing distant large-scale atmospheric pressure gradients, attest to forces at work beyond our tiny purview. This is why stars twinkle.
Baleful blood-red Scorpion heart, Antares, sits low in the south. The orb flashes sharp red and green and yellow and blue (if you stare carefully), dancing. Astronomers hate that. Twinkling harbingers fuzzed, mushy, corpulent images. Spica is higher in the sky, its hard, white-blue light passing through less of our atmosphere. It holds fairly steady, only an occasional flicker. I look higher. Orangey Arcturus, one of my favorite stars, stares unblinking, steady, solid. Some part of my brain registers that stars higher than about forty degrees above the horizon will be sharp tonight. I notice muscles relaxing, a growing anxiety over data quality now dissipates. Mona Lisa smile: in this clear air, the night will be dark and the Milky Way will billow, almost flocculent, and span the entire vault of the sky. I will remember later to emerge and gape at this wonder until my neck aches. Da Vinci would understand.
Scientists quantify. Astronomers’ measure of seeing—our means of taking the guesswork out of comparing one night to another—is the size of a star’s disk at the focal point of a telescope (that is, on the sensor hanging off its butt end). The width of a circle drawn half-way down from the central, brightest point of the disk that is a star image to its edge as it merges into the sky background is that measure. We call it “full width, half max”, or FWHM.
We measure angles with telescopes—immense, expensive protractors. This star is so many fractions of a degree from that star. A sixtieth of a degree is an arcminute. Your eyes can resolve details down to about one arcminute, or slightly less. A sixtieth of an arcminute is an arcsecond. An arcsecond is a very small angle: the apparent size of a U.S. quarter, 3.1 miles away. (The 61-inch telescope can measure angles to within one thousandth of an arcsecond.) “Good” seeing is when the FWHM of a star image is one arcsecond or less—a useful cultural agreement. Three arcseconds is bad. Five is horrendous, and the stars are dancing madly, taunting and useless, all the way to the zenith.
Inside the dome, chill seeps through my clothes as I wait for dome shutters and mirror covers to open the telescope’s eye to the heavens. As the liquid nitrogen tank satiates the camera dewar in pulsing spurts, a valve trips and vents excess pressure; the hiss is painful. I escape into the side room and toggle switches, powering various devices. The air compressor initiates a new aural assault. I plug my ears. Why did it choose now, I think. Several of us conjecture that the 51-inch telescope is inhabited by gremlins, not so much malevolent as impish, irritating. Maybe they are leprechauns. Back in the dome, motors stop and the nitrogen tank has finished its rhythmic regurgitation of cold. Pulling on insulated blue gloves meant for such things, I disconnect and stow the thick umbilical hose, its business end caked with ice, thin sheets of condensing air flowing to the dome floor. The drive motors wake and hum, a happy sound, as I feed them power. Everything inside this dome is thirsty.
We are ready for the night.
You recognize as a youngster that science, and music, and literature and writing—creative wonders—draw you along comfortable invisible force lines.† But not opera. Overbearing, embarrassing falsetto vibrato is just wrong. As your joints grow creaky and more of your pate warms to the Sun, you know that this is a misperception. You stumble upon more of these, as you notice yourself more often assigning past vigorous feats of physical prowess to the unimportant pursuits of the unimportant young. You ponder these, your various misperceptions. And your misperceptions of misperceptions. Recursion tickles you.
You realize in the shower one day that your—and others’—universal cognitive foibles smacking into observable reality are an irresistible rabbit hole, wondrously vast and an endless source of material to contemplate. Like a particle in the three-body problem of celestial mechanics, your orbit is a tangled meandering, variously lured into the sphere of influence of first one and then the other of those two massive attractors, science and the creative urge.‡ This resonates, and you realize a re-appreciation of past love.
Thus: what shall you write? Unuseful question. The world is big. Where shall you intend your aim? Better. Get thee to the shower!, your ever-reliable Delphic font of nearly every good idea.§ You love nature, and science—especially astronomy and math—and the scientific way of thinking, which come to you with joy and not pain. (This cannot be weird—friends’ and society’s protestations notwithstanding.) The chasm awaits.
On a whim you schlep to a National Association of Science Writers conference, where you are isolated and small, sole introvert amidst a mind-bruising cacophony. Drilling through your crushing discomfort, you meet Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (you buy three copies), you hear Jonathan Coulton sing his wistful nerd anthem, “Code Monkey” (you buy three CDs), and a merciful soul tells you to read Lewis Thomas’s classic medley of essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (why is there no Kindle version?). This is it. A trigger, an unlatching: your dormant writing compulsion awakens.
Astronomy with math. True stories, precisely told. A worthwhile target.
† Halfway through college, you end the pleasant agony and decide astronomy over music. Seemingly by crazy random utterly naive inevitability, you become a professional astronomer. As your mop grows thinner and your knuckles grow larger, you realize the apparent randomicity is a misperception.
‡ The equations, if you are wondering, tell how a massless particle moves in the combined gravitational fields of two massive objects in orbit about each other.¤ Think, for example, Sun–Jupiter–spacecraft. In astronomy, we call this the restricted three-body problem. It is astonishingly complex.
¤ For completeness:
of ice and cold —
we near the mists of Niflheim
Dark skies are a treasure, a part of our culture, a part of who we are as humans that we must preserve. Due to some enlightened and forward thinking in the late 1980s, the outdoor lighting code implemented in Flagstaff has thus far kept light pollution from completely overrunning our beautiful natural skies.
From my back yard, 2.5 miles from the downtown commercial business center (click the thumbnail at right), I can see stars as faint as about magnitude 5.5 on a clear, Moonless night. In the video, North is towards the upper left corner. On the left side (NE), you can see that the sky background is noticeably brighter than toward the SW at right. The center of downtown Flagstaff is toward the NE.
This is 3.25 hours of the sky wheeling by in my Flagstaff back yard. Famous objects that appear: the Andromeda Galaxy (passes straight overhead), the Double Cluster in Perseus (left of Andromeda Galaxy), the Pleiades (towards the end, at the bottom), and Capella (towards the end, bright star at left).
Camera: Canon G3 X, 30 seconds per “video” frame (15-second exposures).
A 360-degree panorama from the U.S. Naval Observatory 61-inch telescope dome catwalk, stitched together from nine photos. (You’ll notice I caught the catwalk railing in one of the photos. Oops.) This was on 2015-11-06, with a Canon G3 X.
Probably the best way to view (and download) the full-resolution version of this 23,890×2,597 image, which has such an extreme aspect ratio, is to use the Google viewer (use the magnifier): https://goo.gl/RTXJxp. The version below is 1/6 resolution. (After clicking to enlarge, right-click and open in a new tab to view the 1/6-resolution version.)