It’s easy to forget what an amazing time we live in. Today I took a bike ride while listening to a book being read through my smart phone. Just think for a moment how many lovely technological advances had to occur for the above sentence to be true. Most obviously the bicycle, and the good roads to go along with it, had to be invented. Even before that, though, the health, safety, and prosperity of a society that allows a luxury like a bike ride had to come to be. Next the smart phone, with all the technology that allows it to store an entire book (many books, actually) and the voice reading it in a box that fits in my pocket – not to mention the speakers, volume control, rechargeable battery and so on that allow the book to be played back over several hours as I pedal through the neighborhood.

And then, of course, there’s the Internet, with innovative services like Audible.com that allow me, for a minimal cost, to download a fantastic selection of books. My latest downloads include two books by Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World and the original Cosmos.

Today I was listening to Cosmos, read by Geordi La Forge himself, LeVar Burton. It’s wild to hear Geordi reading Dr. Sagan’s words about futuristic spacecraft and travels to the stars. But what I want to write about today is the enthusiasm, the utter joy, with which Carl wrote about the search for planets around those other stars.

When Cosmos was published in 1980 the search for extra-solar planets was in its infancy. Sagan wrote at some length about the prospects for the search, which he judged to be very good. He had lots of reasons to believe that there would be many, many planets out there. But of course he did not know. And the excitement he felt about this soon-to-be-gained knowledge is palpable in his words.

Since the writing of Cosmos, scientists have discovered literally thousands of extra-solar planets, and based on the percentages of stars with planets so far identified, estimates for the entire galaxy run into the hundreds of billions. Sagan would be overjoyed by this number.

The latest additions, found in the data of the now-disabled Kepler Space Telescope, include ten Earth-sized planets found in the habitable zones of their planets. If the raw materials are there, any or all of these planets could have liquid water in the form of rivers, lakes, and oceans. We don’t know yet if they do, but, like Carl in 1980, we today stand on the edge of the future. In not many more years, we will not only know about Earth-like worlds around other stars, we will have peered at them and learned their secrets. What will we find there?

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Above is Kepler-186f (artists concept) We of course have no idea if this is really what the planet looks like, but its distance and size make this conception a possible reality. Someday we will know.

 

Carl Sagan was eternally hopeful that not only planets, but life would be a commonplace in the cosmos. I agree with him that while life itself may be quite common (after all, life on our planet began almost as soon as it could have), complex life equivalent to animals and plants might be relatively rare (as these took billions of years to appear on Earth). Unlike Sagan, however, I actually hope that this is the case. That’s because I’m an optimist.

When I look at the advancements humans have made – not the least of which, as I mentioned above, is a relatively safe, stable, law-abiding society that is positively exploding with technological advancement – I believe that human potential is unlimited. If we can find ways to not destroy one another and our planet (and of course we can), then there is nothing we can’t achieve. We can venture from “the shores of the cosmic ocean” as Carl said, and carry the human adventure to the stars.

And if we can do it, then of course any other intelligent life form could, too. The fact that (apparently) they haven’t, the fact that, as far as we can tell, our neighborhood is without any sign of a galactic civilization, should give us pause. The universe is very old, much older than ourselves, or even our planet. If no one is yet master of the galaxy, then my optimistic hope is that intelligent life is almost impossible to evolve. We may be the only one.

Otherwise, if complex life, and then intelligent life, are commonplace, it means virtually every intelligent species runs into some sort of wall, some obstacle that keeps them from moving out into the galaxy and leaving their tell-tale signs. If, instead, the problems of civilization are soluble, then we may well be alone. I hope so, anyhow.

 

As important, varied, and wondrous as the beach is the dune directly behind it. All along Sanibel, dune vegetation separates roads and structures from the sands and shells of the beach.

Today I walked 2 miles to the Sanibel Lighthouse.

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While there, I followed one of the many paths through the dunes to the lighthouse base. In the shadow of the lighthouse itself, I came across a sign all about gopher tortoises.

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I thought, wouldn’t it be great to see one. I turned around, and there one was, munching on a plant directly behind me.

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Even crazier than that, when I went to take a picture, who should hop into the shot but a marsh rabbit!

 

And here you see the two of them, practically in the shadow of the Sanibel Lighthouse as the Sun rises over another perfect day. Maybe they’re getting ready for their big race.

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Gopher tortoises can live up to 80 years in the wild. Unlike sea turtles, which lay hundreds of eggs in a season, gopher tortoises produce only 3 to 15 eggs in a clutch. The eggs take about 90 days to hatch (as opposed to 60 for the much larger sea turtles). Like sea turtles, though, hatchling gopher tortoises have a lot of predators. Only about 1 in 100 will live to reproductive age.

The tortoises are herbivores. They munch on many different plants found in the dunes, including prickly pear cactus and the various berries and fruits that the dune plants produce. Occasionally the tortoises will munch on dead animal bones, probably for the calcium they provide.

Gopher tortoises are diggers. As such, they play a vital role in the dune ecosystem. Many other animals, including the marsh rabbit, use old gopher tortoise burrows for shade, protection, even nesting. These include the Florida mouse, the burrowing owl, the threatened eastern indigo snake and, yes, the marsh rabbit, too.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of dunes to a place like Sanibel. The protection the dune affords works both directions. The dune protects the beach from landward runoff erosion by capturing and slowing the moving water. It also protects the land from saltwater intrusions during hurricanes or storms. The beach grass digs down into the soil, creating a network of intertwined roots that holds the loose soil in place. Here you can see that near the lighthouse those roots are helping slow erosion, keeping the lighthouse and its surroundings stable.

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While the dunes are vital, the beach itself will always be my first love. So let me finish this entry with one final picture, a lovely sanderling reflected the sunrise over my favorite island. You can see the lighthouse away off to the left – I still had some walking to do.

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In the wee morning hours, an ancient reptile left the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and trudged up a long, low stretch of beach on Sanibel Island, using a back-and-forth gait that left telltale comma-shaped marks in the sand. Once she reached the vegetation that marks the end of the beach and the beginning of the dune, the loggerhead turtle began to dig. She dug into the wet, hard-packed sand with her back flippers, scooping the sand up with a gentle curve and flinging it aside with a delicacy surprising for a 300-lb sea creature unfamiliar with gravity’s insistent pull.

Once she had sculpted the egg chamber to her liking (a pear-shaped cavity wider at the bottom and narrowing to a neck), the turtle began filling her nest with leathery, white, ping-pong ball sized eggs. She placed perhaps 100 or more tiny potential turtles into the nest. While she worked, tears streamed from each eye, concentrated salt water leaving her body to keep her internal chemistry (the chemistry of a creature descended from land-dwellers) in balance.

Finally, the turtle covered her nest, hiding the signs of her work from the myriad potential predators of baby turtles, and headed back toward the Gulf. She struggled over the land (it was low tide), but once she reached the water her powerful flippers soon had her floating, soaring, gracefully maneuvering past hidden sandbars and into open waters once more. She would likely never see any of the babies she’d left behind.

Later that morning, as the Sun was beginning to peak above the Ft. Myers coastline to the East, a volunteer turtle walker from SCCF spotted the loggerhead’s distinctive comma-shaped tracks in the sand. The volunteer placed an orange flag between the up-beach and down-beach tracks. And not long after that I showed up to take pictures, as the tracks ended almost directly in front of our condominium!

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When the next set of SCCF team showed up with their yellow stakes and yellow tape, I was there, full of questions, excited to know if this was a true nest or just a false crawl. One of the SCCF turtle experts dug into the center of the turtle’s excavation and uncovered a perfect egg right on top. (I was so excited to see the egg I forgot to take a picture!) The team of two then set to work, in between putting up with my million questions with calm and grace.

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Here’s one, placing the wire mesh over the eggs. I learned that the mesh is there not to keep out raccoons, as I had guessed, but to thwart the coyotes that have become a larger danger to turtle nests in recent years.

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Here’s the other, using a gps device to record with exacting precision the location of this, next 61 on East Sanibel this season. In about 60 days, if all goes well, 100 or more tiny loggerhead hatchlings will boil from the sand and scramble toward the surf. Finally, here’s the nest as seen from the balcony of our condo Through the screen. To think that less than 24 hours ago an enormous sea turtle was crawling across that very sand!

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Humans have always been awed by nature, and have struggled to express their feeble, but growing, understanding of it. This is the origin of science, of course, but also of so much of the world’s great art. In Southern Ohio is one such expression, called Serpent Mound:

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No one knows its true meaning, but recent evidence suggests that it may have been built around 1070 CE. Interestingly, this corresponds with a spectacular appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066, the same appearance captured in the Bayeux Tapestry. Could Serpent Mound be an artistic representation of this most famous of comets?

The human form itself is, of course, part of the natural world, and artists have often created art to celebrate and wonder at our own bodies. My favorite of these can be found in Florence, Italy at the Galleria dell’Accademia. The most famous work there is, of course, David:

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But even more compelling for me are the Michelangelo works to be found in the hallway leading to David. These are the “unfinished statues” that show figures seeming to emerge, struggling, from marble.

Perhaps I am in awe of sea turtles for the same reason I am awed by these sculptures. Like Michelangelo’s figures trapped in metamorphosed stone, sea turtles emerge, as if by magic, from a nest built in sand. Like a comet in the sky, like a human growing into the world, the metamorphosis from tiny egg to majestic sea giant is the stuff of wonder.

I’m not alone in thinking so. Near another Sanibel nest, an emerging artist, agog with the wonder of sea turtles and their mysteries, has created a sculpture in sand that reminds me of both Serpent Mound and Michelangelo’s Unfinished Statues. This sculpture points directly at the nest, in the same way that Serpent Mound points toward the cardinal directions in the sky, in the same way that Michelangelo’s Unfinished Sculptures point toward his masterpiece, David. And again, I am in awe:

The beach is full of stories. Maybe the story is the graceful pelican, flying along the surf’s edge in search of fish. Perhaps there’s a nest of hungry chicks nearby, waiting for breakfast. Or perhaps this is a lone bird with a long and complex history.

Maybe the story is the young girl who just caught the largest fish of her life, a wide-mouth ocean monster called a snook.

Maybe the story is the couple volunteering with the SCCF, walking the beach each morning of nesting season for the past 12 years, looking for turtle tracks. I talked with them about the two false crawls they’d found that morning, the signs they see that help them identify the turtle as a loggerhead, and their hope that the turtles may once again this year set a new record. “If we can avoid any big storms,” one volunteer says, “It’s all about hatchlings, not nests.”

Maybe it’s a tiny story, like the auger snail I observed.

Every day, every moment, the beach changes. Tides and waves sculpt the sand. Sandbars develop and disappear. This morning I watched water pouring over a lip of sand and into a tide pool, creating a miniature Niagara that would last for less than half an hour, then disappear.

In one of these tidal pools, I saw long, winding tracks.

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Following these tracks, I came to an end, and at that end I found a perfect little auger snail. She had been sculpting the seascape, searching for food and leaving a record of her journey. I snapped a blurry picture and placed her back where she belonged.

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But the story I want to tell today is about my friend the reddish egret.

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I met this charismatic bird just at sunrise. We were both standing in a tide pool. At first I assumed the bird, because of its dark color, must be a heron.

Next, the oddest thing happened. As the sunrise appeared behind me, the bird started doing a crazy dance. You can see a little bit of it here:

What in the world was this bird doing?

I got out my handy-dandy beach guide book (Florida’s Living Beaches by Blair and Dawn Witherington) and found that the bird wasn’t a heron at all, but instead was a reddish egret. Even more exciting, “(r)eddish egrets,” the Witheringtons tell me, “run in circles and flail their wings to herd fish.” Further research informed me that the wing spreading creates shade, into which small fish swim for cover. The egret then has easy pickings. What an amazing adaptation, one that I was able to observe first-hand as the sun rose over another perfect day on Sanibel.

The birds here are endlessly fascinating, from the ospreys and pelicans pulling fish from the waves to the sanderlings and ibises probing the edge of the surf for food to the crows and gulls foraging through the detritus in the wrack line. But when you consider how these birds got here, they become even more incredible.

Birds first appeared from dinosaur ancestors more than 150 million years ago. But evolution never happens in sudden jumps. There was never a dinosaur mother that gave birth to a bird offspring. If you could see the actual sequence of events, generation after generation, you’d see a continuous line of tiny, almost imperceptible changes from dinosaur to bird. In this sense, birds are dinosaurs, living today in virtually every ecosystem on Earth (including, of course, the beach). Those behaviors of the reddish egret you can see in the video above run in a direct line, from the hatchling in its nest through all its ancestors until you come to a creature that that looks like this:

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Though the birds are just one branch of the dinosaur tree, they form a massive branch – there are more bird species on Earth today than mammal, reptile, or amphibian species, and the total number of birds, around 300 billion, also outnumbers the other four-limbed vertebrates. Among all vertebrates, only fish have done better than the birds. And as Sanibel mornings show, these modern-day dinosaurs are doing their best to even that score.

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Only a short beach walk today, as we left early to explore the wonders of Cayo Costa State Park. Incredible shelling, and lots of live animals including blue crab, sand crab, mole crab, living whelks and Florida fighting conch. We also saw a turtle nest that had been raided by a group of ghost crabs. It’s a rough world out there for baby turtles.

I managed to grab some amazing sunrise photos before my walk ended.

Like a rainbow, a sunrise (or a sunset) is a beautiful example of the deep mystery of color.

Sunrises are orange because white light from the Sun is broken up by our atmosphere. Any sunbeam is actually made up of myriad photons, or pieces of light. Each piece has its own wavelength. Blue and violet photons have tiny wavelengths, while orange and red photons have longer wavelengths. The oxygen and nitrogen in the air are more likely to interact with the shorter wavelength photons, sending them bouncing off in all sorts of crazy directions (that’s why the sky is blue!) At Sunrise, the beam we see has passed through all the air over the Atlantic, so that most of the short wavelength blue and purple photons have been scattered out. What’s left are the longer photons, which we see as orange.

But there’s the real mystery. There’s nothing inherently “orange” about an orange photon. It’s just a wavelength. What makes the photon orange is that it excites one kind, but not another kind, of light-sensitive cell in our eyes. In a certain sense, the sunrise isn’t orange (the experience of orange) until you look at it.

Why, though, do we see in color at all? Why those beautiful blue skies and emerald green water I can see from the beach? Why red flowers, yellow bananas, and, well, orange oranges? Why isn’t the world, like 1939 Kansas, all in black and white?

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Our ancestors were fruit eaters. Being able to spot the ripe mango or strawberry or blackberry might have given us a selective advantage. But another theory I recently ran across is that we evolved our color vision to help us read emotions.

The idea is that a potential rival (or a potential mate) will show you their feelings in their changing skin tones. A blush, a flash of anger, or a moment of fear can all show up on our faces, and our exquisite color vision seems to be especially tuned to these subtle color variations.

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So when you enjoy your next sunrise, consider for a moment that you might be doing so because you’re so good at knowing when that cutie across the room is flirting with you!

 

At least one mother turtle in the waters near Sanibel has a lovely sense of aesthetics. Her nest is in one of the most beautiful spots ever seen.

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Nestled at the top of the beach between the sea grapes and the beach spiderlilies, this nest is the work of a master egg-layer, part of an unbroken chain of nest builders stretching to the time of the great dinosaurs.

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Labeled “nest 21” by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), the information on the cart informs the beachgoer that this is a loggerhead nest (almost every nest on Sanibel will be from a loggerhead).

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Baby loggerhead turtles grow under the sand for around 60 days. Under the sand, the turtles develop those traits – powerful flippers, salt excretion glands, even a compass in the nose – that will help them survive for 100 years or more – if they are very, very lucky. The sand temperature itself determines if this nest contains any future nest builders. Particularly warm sand will produce female turtles, future sculptors in sand. Cooler temps will brood male turtles, who may never touch the land again once they leave their birthing beach.

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When those turtles emerge as hatchlings, all 110 or so of the siblings “boil out” of the nest at the same time. This is an adaptation to overwhelm the hatchlings’ many predators, which include ghost crabs, sea birds, and predatory fish. It is estimated that only 1 in 1000 will survive to adulthood, meaning for every baby turtle buried below this very sand, there’s still a chance.

Good luck, baby turtles! I hope some of you are as brilliant as your momma!

PS Here’s the sunrise this morning. Perfection!

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The Moon is just past full, which makes the tides particularly extreme. This evening the receding tide exposed the far sand bar, creating a tide pool with crystal clear water that was shallow enough to wade across.

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We found a nine-armed sea star

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dozens of crabs, dozens more onion anemones exposed on the sandbar, and a purple sea urchin.

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Also lots of lettered olives, whelks, and scallops, both living specimens as well as empty shells. Pretty amazing, and all thanks to a nearly full Moon and the almost magical ability of gravity to move water. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

The entire Ft. Myers area was immersed in rain as we flew in on Saturday. The result was flood waters all over Sanibel. We were amazed to see catfish slithering along in parking lots and roadsides. In heavy rains, the inland waterways on Sanibel overflow their banks, and out come the catfish.

By Sunday morning the rains had ceased, and the weather was calm and beautiful. A nearly full moon tried to peek through the thick cloud cover as I began my first beach walk of the season. I didn’t have to go far to find the first turtle nest – it lies right at the end of our beach access path.

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Two more nests are marked nearby. I sat between them and watched the sunrise, thinking about these ancient reptiles and their journeys through the sea and up its edge to find the perfect place to build their nests.

Sanibel loggerheads have broken records the past two seasons for number of nests. Biologists speculate that the rules about shrimp trawling, first vigorously enforced 20-30 years ago, are finally showing an effect. Loggerhead turtles that would have drowned in shrimp nets are today alive in the Gulf, and are building nests in record numbers. A success story, and a lesson – sometimes success takes a long time to appear.

20170611_062956Unfortunately, many of the nests the past two seasons have not hatched. It is believed that the greater than normal sand temperatures have baked many of the baby turtles inside their eggs. Will the turtles adjust to these higher temperatures? Will the center of loggerhead nesting move away from Florida, and onto cooler beaches? Of course, if warming continues unabated, Florida itself will disappear beneath the waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic – an unhappy ending for a place as beautiful as this.

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Turtles weren’t the only story on Day 1. While standing in the surf, I saw a dolphin spinning about for breakfast. Marsh rabbits were busy nibbling on the water-softened plants near the beach. I even saw our first lizard of the season. Usually the lizards are thick; the wet and relatively cool weather must have kept them undercover. Maybe today they’ll appear.

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In 2011, Steven Pinker wrote the world-changing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In that book, Pinker described the myriad ways in which we humans have become kinder, gentler, smarter, and more accepting of one another. All these trends were clear via many different aspects of our society, from crime statistics to song lyrics, from how states interact to the state of mass entertainment. Pinker discusses much of this change in terms of the Flynn Effect – the puzzling (and surprising, to those who don’t work with brilliant young people every day) fact that average IQ scores are on the rise.

Prophetically, Pinker pointed out there was one area that seemed immune to the trend – in fact, seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. That was the state of national politics. Careful analysis of the words of the candidates showed that the level of discourse in debates was in steady decline.

I quote from page 797:

“In one arena, however, politicians really do seem to be swimming against the Flynn Effect: American presidential debates . . . Ironically, the decrease in sophistication in presidential debates may be the product of an increase in the sophistication of political strategists. Televised debates in the waning weeks of a campaign are aimed at a sliver of undecided voters who are among the least informed and least engaged sectors of the electorate. They are apt to make their choice based on sound bites and one-liners, so the strategists advise the candidates to aim low.”

“Aim low” is an apt description of where we find ourselves today. Yesterday I, like everyone else, read with fascination former FBI Director James Comey’s account of his conversations with our president. Whether Comey’s account shows that the president is guilty of a crime, I’ll leave to more practiced legal minds than my own. More interesting to me was the picture Comey’s descriptions painted of our 45th president.

What I gleaned from Comey’s account was a portrait of a man (Trump, not Comey) obsessed with himself and his own inner circle. Unconcerned with whether or not a foreign power had gained a foothold in the American election process, President Trump’s interest focused on the denial of a personal relationship with “hookers and Russia.” Unconcerned with whether or not his former National Security Advisor had been compromised by those same Russians, President Trump’s interest centered on letting Flynn go because “he is a good guy.” Unconcerned with whether or not his FBI Director would faithfully execute his sworn duties, President Trump told Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

If this was just a slam piece from a disgruntled former employee, we might dismiss the indictment of President Trump’s character, but it is far from isolated. A Washington Post article in July (quoted here)

reported Trump as saying that he does not read extensively because he is able to come to correct decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

A report on the website Politico indicates the lack of depth in Trump’s decision-making process:

White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

And then, of course, there’s Trump’s famous line after the Nevada primary, “I love the poorly educated.”

Pinker warned us in 2011 that our presidential politics (unlike, thankfully, most aspects of our lives) were in a race to the bottom. Our only hope is that we’ve found that bottom in Donald J. Trump.

OK, that’s all depressing. Now read this, an interview with Pinker in December in which he gives us reason to hope. I was especially moved by his statement that “(a) modern liberal democracy is a precious achievement.” Indeed. Too bad Pinker is Canadian; he might make a good anti-anti-intellectual candidate.

Later this summer, Actors Summer Theatre is performing The Tempest, and so I re-read it in preparation. I also watched the Julie Taymor/Helen Mirren 2010 movie of the play, as well as Christopher Plummer’s version performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival also in 2010. Mirren/Taymor is beautiful and compelling, but I was so emotionally moved by Christopher Plummer’s movie/play that I found myself in tears and applauding along with the audience at its end.

The Tempest’s big problem I wrote about before is still there – how are we to understand Prospero’s relationship with Caliban? But what I want to write about this time is Prospero’s emotional surrender of his power – his magic – at the end of the play. I agree with so many readers that Shakespeare was creating in Prospero’s magic a metaphor for his own magic, his ability to create plays.

None of us are Shakespeare, but we all are, in some sense, magicians, creators in our own lives. My magic, my creation, is teaching. I love to craft a lesson, to practice it, to consider how to use my tools – group discovery, inductive reasoning, storytelling, physical demonstration, discrepant events – to build the edifice of the lesson, to weave the pieces together into a coherent whole. Four years ago, when I left my position at COSI, I lost that outlet for my art, and I realize now that this was a kind of ending for me. Now that I have awoken from that sleep, now that I am teaching again, I realize how important my art is to me.

In Act I, Scene II, Prospero calls his magic cloak “my art.” After creating a magical show for Miranda and her new fiance Ferdinand, Prospero compares his creation to actors on a stage. Later, just before he abandons his magic, he calls it his “so potent art.” And yet he gives up his art, his magic, at the play’s end. Why?

Prospero thinks a great deal about death. He says that when he returns to Naples, “every third thought shall be my grave.” And of course his most famous speech, which I referenced above, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare died soon after writing The Tempest, but I don’t think he was foreshadowing his own death here. Instead, I think surrendering his magic, his art, for Shakespeare seemed like a kind of rest, a “sleep.” The death was not of Shakespeare, but of his drive to create.

For my own part, I know now that I want no such rest. I’m late to the classroom, and don’t have that many years to spend there. But I will never stop teaching. Even now, in writing these blogs, I’m trying, hoping, to teach, maybe to awaken in someone out there a love of Shakespeare, or a love of science, or even a love of teaching. When my classroom days are over, I’ll still be teaching, somehow, somewhere. Teaching isnot what I do; it’s who I am.

I hope Prospero finds happiness – freedom, as he says in the final words of the play – in his retirement in Milan. But Shakespeare, I suspect, could not escape his muse – neither master nor slave, but finally, like a sea turtle’s shell, like the shore of the sea, like (let’s say it) his own soul, a part of himself.

 

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My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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