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I’ve said many times that reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch changed my life. I just today finished Dan Brown’s book Inferno and I’m once again glad I read The Beginning of Infinity first.
If you plan on reading Inferno, go do it now, because I’m likely to reveal something in what follows that you wouldn’t want revealed.
OK, see you later.
Wow, back already! You’re a fast reader!
First off, Inferno is a fun if silly book. I know very little about art, and so it was fun for me to hear all the place names, all the cathedrals, all the history of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul (yes, the one in the song). I wanted something light to read over vacation, and Inferno gave me pretty much what I wanted. And who am I to thumb my nose at an author who sells more books in a day than I, well, than I’ll sell. Ever. By a lot. A whole lot.
Anyhow, there’s one facet of Inferno that I have to write about, because it’s an issue of science, and it’s something that not one single character in the book ever questions.
And yet it’s dead wrong.
I wouldn’t have thought so before reading The Beginning of Infinity. Like lots of other smarty-pants people, I thought all our human problems could be traced back to the fact that we keep having all these damn babies. Too many people, too many resources used up, too much of a stress on our environment, beyond the carrying capacity, all that.
Then I read David Deutsch, and everything changed. In Chapter 9 (“Optimism”), Deutsch discusses Thomas Malthus and his predictions of imminent starvation in the late 1700s. Malthus’ predictions didn’t come true because he underestimated the human capacity to create new knowledge. Humans found ways to produce far more food than ever before, and so even though the population increased as Malthus predicted, starvation was not the result.
Again in Chapter 17 (“Unsustainable”), Deutsch tells the story of a lecture by Paul Ehrlich and his very similar predictions of environmental collapse and attendant human suffering. Here’s what Deutsch says:
I can remember when I stopped worrying. At the end of the lecture a girl asked Ehrlich a question. I have forgotten the details, but it had the form ‘What if we solve [one of the problems that Ehrlich had described] within the next few years? Wouldn’t that affect your conclusion?’ Ehrlich’s reply was brisk. How could we possibly solve it? (She did not know.) And even if we did, how could that do more than briefly delay the catastrophe? And what would we do then?
What a relief! Once I realized that Ehrlich’s prophesies amounted to saying, ‘If we stop solving problems, we are doomed,’ I no longer found them shocking, for how could it be otherwise? Quite possibly that girl went on to solve the very problem she asked about, and the one after it. At any rate, someone must have, because the catastrophe scheduled for 1991 has still not materialized.
The reason both Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong is that they forgot something so obvious it almost seems silly to type: we cannot know what we have not yet discovered. People are knowledge creators. Knowledge creation is inherently unpredictable. The reason neither Malthus’ nor Ehrlich’s disasters materialized is that people created knowledge that solved the problems Malthus and Ehrlich posed.
So what does all this have to do with Dan Brown and Inferno? In the book, the villain states that humanity has become too numerous, and that our fecundity will lead to our extinction. His solution? A genetically engineered virus that will randomly sterilize one-third of humanity (OK, now I gave away the ending: sorry, but I did warn you.) All right, so the fictional villain of a summer beach read thriller is a crazy geneticist. Big deal.
But everyone in the book, including the Director of the World Health Organization and also the book’s 208-IQ heroine, agree with the villain! They all think there are too many people. They all think we’re on the path to extinction because of our overpopulation. They all think that sterilizing billions is not so bad.
Not only is this deeply immoral, it is also wrong.
Don’t get me wrong; I think planning your reproduction is a grand thing. Children should be cherished and treasured, and the ability to plan when and where to have them is a crucial human right that everyone deserves. But that choice must be an individual one, not one that’s made by some guy in Florence with a gene sequencer.
The way to reduce population growth is proven. It’s well-known. It works everywhere it is tried. Empower women. Everywhere women are educated, employed, and given basic human rights, the birth rate drops and the quality of each child’s life goes up. We don’t need to sterilize women. We need to teach them to read.
Dan Brown has fallen into the pessimists’ trap. Here’s Deutch again, on
. . . two different conceptions of what people are. In the pessimistic conception, they are wasters: they take precious resources and madly convert them into useless (gadgets) . . . In the optimistic conception – the one that was unforeseeably vindicated by events – people are problem-solvers: creators of the unsustainable solution and hence also of the next problem. In the pessimistic conception, that distinctive ability is a disease for which sustainability is the cure. In the optimistic one, sustainability is the disease and people are the cure.
If I’d read Dan Brown before (or without) reading David Deutsch, I likely would have agreed with the villian (and everyone else) that people are a disease. Now I know better. The only sustainable future is continual progress. Go people!
On Friday afternoon I spent some time observing the coquina clams’ behavior during receding tide. What I didn’t see was a lot of coquinas digging themselves out on the high beach, so that part of my idea was bad. I did seem to see a lot of coquinas rolling down the beach and then digging in once they moved down a bit. Maybe a positive reinforcement bias, I don’t know. So I think it’s still possible that the coquinas know the difference between an incoming tide and a receding one, and change their behavior accordingly.
However, I also found that at least a few coquinas do get left behind by a receding tide, and seem to do just fine buried in the drying sand, so maybe it’s not such a big deal that they get pulled back in by a receding tide. Maybe they prefer to be in the swash zone, but are content if they are left higher on the beach, and resume their behavior once the tide returns.
At any rate, it was fun to think about them and how they deal with the problem of changing tides. I’ll keep reading to see what’s already known about their behavior.
On Saturday morning I made a very short beach walk, because we all had to pack up and head for the airport. One final picture of “my nest” with the Gulf in the background.
In 35-45 days, if all goes well, from that spot will pop around 100 tiny loggerhead hatchlings. They’ll scramble for the gulf and disappear for 20 years or more. If one is very, very lucky, she may return to this very beach in 2033 or so to build her very own nest in this same spot. I hope she makes it. Good luck, baby turtles, and goodbye for now to the gulf and the beach. We’ll miss you!
This morning Julie and Caroline get up with me and walk north along the beach. It is a beautiful morning and the water is warm. The tide is low, but coming in. We watch the coquina clams, and I share with Julie my discovery of yesterday.
We reach turtle nest 30, then turn around and head back for the condo. They go back upstairs, while I cross the road and head south, in search of my rained-out fiddler crabs.
It’s amazing how still you have to be to get these crabs to come out of their holes. I lay on the pavement, watching, holding my camera in position, watching the sandy mud flat that is washed by Boca Ciega Bay at high tide. Now, with the tide still fairly low, I can clearly see the little round crab holes. But no crabs. Yet.
Then, finally, my patience pays off. The crabs come out and begin sifting through the sand for little bits of food. I snap a few pictures, barely breathing. The crabs are hard to see, but if you look in the top center, you can barely make out his claw. I’ve cropped this section below, though it’s pretty blurry.
What can I say? I’m new to this whole photography thing.
Fiddler crabs are pretty amazing. The males use those large claws to communicate to females and to warn away other males. You’ll see them, once they’ve adjusted to your presence, waving those claws in the air for all to see. Another example of sexual selection, since clearly they’re making themselves more vulnerable to predators by making such a show of themselves. Oh, what we men to to attract women!
Even more amazing is this: if a male loses a large claw in a fight, the small claw (the one used for unimportant things like feeding) will actually start growing into a large claw, and the formerly large claw will regenerate into a small claw. So the crabs go from right-clawed to left-clawed, or vice-versa. A neat trick; I’m sure there are a few baseball managers who wish that would work with their bullpens. Just whack off a pitcher’s right arm and in a few days you’ve got a southpaw.
I headed back for the beach and my turtle nest. We fly out tomorrow morning, so this will probably be my last chance to commune with nest 62. I hope it does well. You can keep track of nest 62 and all the other nests on the beach at this website, though as of now they haven’t updated since I’ve been here. I’ll keep watching.
As I walked back along the surf line, watching the sand, I heard thunder off to the east toward Tampa. Maybe a storm had rolled in off Tampa Bay in the morning. Strange to hear thunder with the Sun shining brightly. I walked up the beach and rinsed the sand off my feet. As I sat waiting to dry a little, Florida gave me the first of two morning surprises. Just like yesterday, a rainbow appeared in the sky over the ocean. This time I got it. You can even see the CMA sea turtle nest spotter truck driving along the beach just under the rainbow.
Florida is full of surprises, and Julie got another one as I was writing this blog; a baby lizard hiding on Alyssa’s snorkel gear. Probably newly-hatched, in 24 hours the balcony will be his – at least until the next family arrives to savor the wonders this place has to offer.
Before that, though, I have one more beach walk – a short one, to be sure – planned for Saturday morning.
It’s dark this morning, but I spot four figures in brightly-colored clothing already on the beach just to the south of the fishing pier. A little annoyed that anyone beat me to the beach, I decide to go north. As I get closer, though, I realize that what I thought were human figures were actually just tied-up beach umbrellas, left in place overnight. I change my mind and head south, instead.
I walk a long way in the darkness, watching the sand for movement. All I see are coquina clams – lots and lots of them. Whole beds of coquinas, washing along in the swash zone. As I watch them, I notice something peculiar.
The coquinas near my feet do the expected thing: when the surf rolls back, they dig into the sand and disappear. However, the coquinas further down the beach slope don’t dig themselves in. As I watch, these clams dig themselves out! In a moment I have a guess as to why.
It’s around 6:00 am. Low tide was around 4:00, so this is an incoming tide. Of course, I realize with a start. The coquinas can’t only dig in. If they did, they couldn’t move with the changing tides. Instead, they must dig in only when they reach the top of the swash zone, and dig out when lower. That lets the incoming wave wash them up the beach.
I watch a few more beds of coquinas to see if my guess matches with their behavior. Yes! Every time I see a bed of coquinas down low, they dig out of the sand as the wave recedes. Then, when those same coquinas get washed up higher by the next wave, they dig into the sand and disappear beneath my feet. Amazing.
Next I realize that this behavior must change as the tides change. They can’t only let themselves be washed up the beach. They must also let themselves be washed down the beach during a receding tide! On Friday, when I’ll be on the beach all day long, I’ll test this guess against reality.
Of course, I know this isn’t some great discovery. It’s almost just common sense, and I’m certain if I studied the literature on coquina clams and the swash zone this behavior will be well-known and well-studied. But to me, it’s a new discovery, deep, beautiful, and exciting.
Like all such discoveries, it suggests far more questions than answers. I wonder next, how to the clams do it? How do they know when to alter their behavior? How can they tell if the tide is swelling or receding? I can’t tell, not without the internet in my pocket (or at least a tide table). How do these tiny mollusks know?
Are they programmed to their specific beach? If I took coquinas from this beach and placed them on another with very different tide times, would they ever adjust? Or is their internal clock independent of outside influence? How could so much knowledge reside in this tiny shelled creature?
Mysteries are wonderful things; I can’t wait to explore this one some more.
This long barrier island just south of Clearwater Beach is relatively litter-free; even so, I do come across the occasional thoughtlessly-left bit of trash on the beach. Now I find a gall0n-sized zippered plastic bag, and I decide to grab it. Plastic bags are the mortal enemies of sea turtles, who eat them thinking they are jellyfish.
Humans are remarkable creatures, I think as I carry the wet bag up the beach toward a trash can. We’re capable with our brains and our technology of utterly transforming an environment, making it totally unsuitable for the natives. We are also the only creatures that try in any way to mitigate their impact. Maybe I just saved a sea turtle’s life.
I decide to sit on a bench just there and watch the ocean for a while. The Sun is coming up behind me now and the gulf is turning green. Such a lovely sight. I will miss this when I’m gone.
Later, I’m lying on a boat ramp into the Boca Ciega Bay, trying to get a picture of a shy fiddler crab. The crabs scurry into their holes on my approach, but if I sit very still, they will eventually forget about me and come out. I get them to reappear, but only then think to take a picture. My movement to get my phone out spooks them, and they disappear. I prepare to wait once again, this time with camera aimed. Unfortunately, those clouds in the picture above are moving west to east, and as soon as they hit the cool morning air over the land, the skies open up and the rain starts pouring down.
I’m not concerned about myself, as the rain is just cool enough to offset the heat of the rising Sun. But I am worried about my phone, so I head for some shelter. There’s a trash can there, and ironically inside is a plastic grocery bag. I pull it out – still clean – and wrap up my phone. Now I can head back out, and I’m excited to do so, because I know enough geometric optics to realize what’s coming next. The Sun is in the east, where the sky is clear. The rain is coming in from the west. I’m about to see a rainbow on the beach!
As I head down the nearest public access, there’s the rainbow. Beautiful, and I immediately start thinking what I always think when I see this marvel. Does understanding the rainbow really make it less beautiful? Of course not. I think again about the coquinas, and my “discovery” earlier that morning.
The first person to understand where a rainbow would appear in the sky must have gotten an enormous thrill, the same thrill I received from my coquina realization. And just as with my coquina discovery (as Richard Dawkins pointed out in his book on the subject), learning one truth about the rainbow didn’t just answer questions, it raised them. Studying rainbows led to the discovery of the true composition of light, its various wavelengths and frequencies. This led in time to the connection between frequency and energy, which in turn led directly to quantum mechanics, the structure of the atom and, eventually, to the age, size, and birth of the universe itself. Not bad.
Between all this reverie and the plastic bag protecting my phone from the rain, by the time I got a picture taken the rainbow was just about gone. Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have shown up, anyway; I’m still very new at this whole photography thing. But even without a visible rainbow (trust me, it was there just in the left part of the shot), I still think I managed a pretty picture. What do you think?
(Yes, that’s a sea turtle nest – though not “my” nest, it’s further off to the left – in the center of the photo.)
Only two more beach walks, and then it’s back to landlocked Ohio. Oh, dear.
Day Three there was no time for a morning beach walk. I got the family up early and we drove two hours to Orlando and Universal Studios. But on Day Four, my feet still sore from a day at the park, I was back on the beach before dawn.
Today the incoming tide is filling tidal pools as I watch. I head north on the beach for the first time and spend most of the morning studying the sand.
The sand is endlessly fascinating to me. A group of sandpipers (willets, I think) probe the sand ahead of me, digging out mole crabs and coquina clams. They try to stay ahead of me and yet keep eating at the same time. I slow down so that they’re not so bothered by my presence. You can just barely make them out in this picture.
I examine the sand up close to see what is so holding the birds’ attention. In one tide pool I see a tiny crab, probably a juvenile speckled crab. He scoots across the sand, then digs himself in. I scoop up the sand and hold him in my palm for a moment, but he escapes me and digs in deeper before I can get a picture.
As I dig in pursuit I disturb numerous mole crabs. The sand is alive with these tiny creatures, more here now than I think I’ve ever seen before. They are decapods, related to all the crabs, shrimp, and lobsters we devour in the finest restaurants.
The mole crabs themselves must be tasty. I see several empty mole crab shells floating in the tide pools; a little bit of early-morning protein for someone.
Mole crabs run across the wet sand backwards, usually moving in a frantic arc until they decide it’s time to burrow. Then their back end disappears into the sand, leaving only their mouthparts at the surface to grab little bits of food from the water.
Also in the sand are multitudes of coquina clams. These live in multicolored shells the size of a fingernail and the shape of a lopsided burrito. If you scoop up a handful of sand and then lay it down at the top of the swash zone, you’ll see these little mollusks turn their shells to the sand and burrow in. They’re quite persistent, taking advantage of any lull in the wave action to bury themselves.
Like the mole crabs, the clams go in rear first, leaving their tops just at the sand line so as to filter water for tiny bits of food. Coquinas are another indicator species, so their abundance on the beach makes me feel good about its health. Besides that, they’re fascinating to watch.
In one tidepool I spot a perfect heart cockle shell. It’s the one bivalve shell I can now identify on sight. I take a picture, but leave the shell for another beachcomber to find. I already have one.
I see a pair of already-marked sea turtle nests up by the dunes and head up the beach to investigate. The first is nest #15, built on June 4. The second is a lovely nest, built on a little rise in the sand. It’s nest #49, built just a week ago on June 12. I sit by this nest for a while and think about the young turtles developing just below that blanket of sand. I think about the world they’ll enter. I wonder if maybe two decades from now I’ll encounter one of these turtles as she returns to this very beach to build her own first nest. Her destiny is to one day return here. I hope that it is mine, as well.
Monday morning I walk south on the beach again. It’s pitch black as I start, so I use a flashlight to see where I’m going. Ghost crabs scurry from the light.
My feet touch the water and I sigh, feeling tension wash away. Why is the first touch of ocean water on my bare feet one of the best feelings I know?
I head down the beach, stopping off at my turtle nest. (yes, it’s my nest now, even though Mike from Clearwater Marine Aquarium set the stakes and probably later counted the eggs, and of course the mother turtle herself played no small part. Nest #62 (I said# 63 in my previous post, but it’s now labeled #62) will always be my nest.)
I reach the rocks I’d aimed for the day before and explore a little. Behind the rocks a wading bird (don’t know the species) is hoping for an early breakfast. I also spot an egg case from a lightning whelk. It looks a little like a snakeskin.
There’s a group of humans, the beach’s most extraordinary creature, doing exercises in these moments before dawn. I don’t spend too much time watching, as they tend to get skittish. Instead, I head east, away from the Gulf and toward the Boca Ciega Bay.
The bay is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, the partly manmade, continuous body of water that separates the barrier islands from the mainland. Where we stay (a place appropriately called “The Narrows”) the Intracoastal is constricted to a tiny bit of water. But anything wanting to pass from Clearwater Harbor to the north into Boca Ciega to the south must pass through here, so I’m hopeful.
The Sun rises over a woody island directly across from me as I watch the water. I’m standing on a public pier with a veranda along its boardwalk. A Great Blue Heron, spooked by a dog to my south, flies up and lands on top. She gives me the stinkeye as she relieves herself on the point. Lovely.
Off to the right I see something in the water. Manatee? Maybe, but it disappears and I don’t see it again. If it had been freshwater I’d guess muskrat; it seemed about that size. But I can’t be sure.
I head back toward the street. As I pass under the heron she becomes agitated at my sudden disappearance. When I reappear on the other side she seems mystified, but relieved. I keep walking.
I cross the intersection where the 694 bridge comes into Gulf Blvd. On the other side is a beautiful walkway through a mangrove forest and out to the bay itself. I watch the water and see silver-sided fish swimming just below the surface. Occasionally the light will catch one just right, sending a flash of silver into my eyes.
The mangroves send up little shoots like straws to gather oxygen. As I study them, I notice the signs of humans – beer bottles, plastic cups, and so on. It baffles me how someone can come to such a beautiful place and leave behind their garbage. Oh, well.
At the end of the walkway is a beautiful view of the bay. The 694 bridge is off to my right, with more water straight ahead and to my left. Below is the view to the left (north along the bay).
I head back to the beach and find a couple more signs of humans, a sea turtle of sand and an amazing alligator built from shells. Nice!
I wake up just before six, despite the fact that my 5:45 alarm failed to go off. By 6:07 I’m on the beach.
I notice right away that my tide tables must be a little off. The tide is supposed to be rising, yet I see little tide pools left behind by a receding tide.
I take off my sandals and step into the cool tidepool water. I know this is the place to look for crabs and other critters left behind by the receding water, but I don’t spot anything. A black-headed laughing gull has the same idea, but has more skill than I. He probes the water with his barbed beak, hoping for breakfast.
I head south on the beach, walking under the pier. Barnacles coat its pilings. I remember a naturalist telling me that one of the rarest commodities in the ocean is a solid surface.
A flock of white ibis seems unperturbed by my presence. They probe the sand, looking for coquina clams and mole crabs. The mole crabs are thick on this beach; I’d noticed that the night before. Dig a little depression at the surf line and you’ll see dozens of tiny crabs, and a few larger ones, too.
Mole crabs are one of the great joys of the beach. Catch one in your palm and it’ll try to burrow backwards into the spaces between your fingers. They have no sharp parts, so it doesn’t hurt at all. I’ve never tried one, but they must be tasty, as these white ibis keep grabbing crabs even though I’m only a few feet away from them.
Further along, a great blue heron guards a tidepool. She’s not moving, no matter how close I get. There must be something good in there. The heron turns her face toward me, staring at me with both eyes at once.
I notice that she’s got a band on her leg – she must have some experience with humans. Finally, as I watch as motionless as I can be, she strides away from her pool, walking gracefully to the north, step by elegant step, watching me all the way. I walk away from the ocean and toward the roped-off shorebird nesting area.
This area is full of black skimmers. I had marveled at their stability the evening before. They fly just above the water line, their lower beaks dipping into the water to scoop up unwary fish. What an amazing feat of engineering, to fly so level with one beak breaking the water line.
The nesting skimmers seem agitated, and I think maybe I’m too close. Then I see the source of their agitation. A laughing gull has infiltrated the group, and the skimmers are busy chasing the interloper off.
I walk a little further along, knowing my quarry. From our balcony the evening before I’d spotted the orange tape and four wooden stakes of a sea turtle nest. I want to get close to this nest, to feel the energy of those baby turtles nestled inside their eggs, buried in sand..
When I arrive at the nest I’m surprised to see the date – June 13! This is a brand new nest, build just Wednesday morning. It is nest 53 of the season, the first nest found after my last report from June 12. Only a few days before, an ancient reptile had climbed from the sea on this very spot, made her way through sugary white sand, and built a nest with perhaps 100 tiny bits of life buried inside.
Further along was another nest. I walked toward it, but was waylaid by a ghost crab hole. Ghost crabs are the sign of a healthy beach, so I’m glad to see this hole. I wait, hoping for a glimpse of the engineer buried deep inside, but his patience is greater than mine, and I finally move on. Further along I see two other ghost crab holes, these with tiny footprints made by the crabs’ sharp legs.
The second turtle nest is two days’ older – built the morning of June 11. A thought goes through my head. The same turtle will often build 3 or more nests in a season. Maybe these two nests, quite near one another, were built by the same mother loggerhead. Maybe she’s working her way north. Maybe her next nest will be closer to my condo. What an amazing thing that would be.
It’s ten minutes to sunrise, and I have one more target this morning – a group of rocks and pilings from a pier that is no more. I never make it.
I walk back toward the ocean, tracing the path of the mother turtle. I turn south and walk toward the pilings, but something stops me short. Tracks! Yes? No. Yes! These are sea turtle tracks. I recognize them from all the pictures I’d seen, and from my previous adventures with sea turtles. But this is something new. Something different. I follow these tracks up the beach. This is an unmarked nest!
I feel my heart racing. I dash back to the previous nest, looking for instructions on the yellow sign there. No phone number. Fortunately my smartphone is in my pocket, and I quickly find the phone number I want. I press in the numbers.
The phone rings.
“This is Mike.”
“Hi, I’m walking the beach and I think I’ve found sea turtle tracks to an unmarked nest.”
“Where are you?”
“About 25 yards south of nest 45.”
“We’re on the north end of the beach. We’ll be there soon.”
And then I wait. Standing there, watching the Sun rise over the beach houses before me, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m at the fork in the turtle’s path, just beachward of the nest, at the place where her up-beach tracks stop and her down-beach path begins. Coming up the beach, she wandered a bit, looking for the right spot, her front flippers digging into the sand and pulling her along.
Her down-beach tracks are much more purposeful, a beeline back to her watery home. I wonder how long ago she passed, how long before she returns.
I wait. I feel responsible now, as if I alone stand between this nest and insensate evil. I’ll protect it against all comers, hooligans with a volleyball, raccoons looking for a snack, or a jogger daring to tread on my nest. I wait. And I wait. I feel a pain in my toe. A tiny red ant has taken a bite of me. Better me, I think, than my baby turtles over there. Even so, I squish the ant. I’m a vertebrate chauvinist at heart.
Finally at 8:01 am I see a four-wheeled buggy driving under the pier and heading my direction. They drive slowly, watching the sand. It’s Mike and a young woman, with a sign on the back of their vehicle that says, “Sea Turtle Patrol.”
I’d met Mike before, though I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. I ask him if I’d really found tracks. “Yes,” he answers. Is it a loggerhead? Yes again. He looks at the nest. Now I’m fearful. What if he tells me this is a false crawl, that the turtle had reached this spot but then changed her mind? What if there were no eggs at all? What if I were protecting an empty nest?
“Well, it looks a little odd, but I see the sand sprayed off to the side,” Mike said. “Usually there’s a mound of sand, but probably she just crawled over it and flattened it out. We’ll mark it and then come back later to see if we can find eggs.”
And I breathed a sigh of relief. Mike marked the nest with stakes. The young woman with him told me it would be nest number 63. My nest.
It was a good day.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium has already counted 52 sea turtle nests as of June 12. Several are close to where I’ll be staying. I’m looking forward to walking the beach every morning. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be the first to see a set of fresh tracks, or even a late arrival just finishing her work.
There’s something magical about sea turtles returning to their home sand to build their nests and lay their eggs. It’s in the long history – sea turtles have been performing this rite every spring for millions of years. It’s in the length of the journey – some sea turtles swim across half an ocean just to reach the beach from which they were born. It’s in the sadness I feel knowing that barely 1 in 1000 hatchlings will survive. No, I don’t believe the turtles themselves feel that same sadness, though the mothers do “cry” salty tears as they make their way up and down the beach. These mothers will never know their babies, of course; by the time the hatchlings scramble madly down the beach the mother will be far, far away.
It’s also in the way mysteries merge. The nighttime arrival from the dark and unknown sea. Not unknown to the turtle, of course, as it is her only home. Instead, it is our world of sand and air and beach chairs that is the mystery to her. It is the only time in her life she will venture onto land; what a terrifying journey it must be for her – if turtles can feel such emotions.
It is in the eggs, left cozied into their surrogate mother the sand. Born from the land, the warmth of the Sun and the cool night breezes, these tiny bits of life will literally swim down the beach until that first wave of salt water passes over their bodies and carries them out into the dark and dangerous sea that will be the only home they’ll ever know.
These creatures have seen our planet change and move over the millennia. They’ve seen other species come and go. They’ve watched our own species rise from a small, naked ape who fearfully approached the shoreline to a creature capable of sailing the seas, exploring its depths, and altering forever the lives of every other creature on the planet.
Don’t get me wrong; I think people are amazing, fantastic, the most significant creatures this planet has ever produced. But our way isn’t the only way. There’s something to be said, too, for an animal that lives its life quietly, away from the light and the noise, in my very favorite place on Earth, the place where the ocean meets the sky.
Here I come!
Today I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I submitted my resignation from COSI.
In the summer of 1993, I applied for a job as a summer workshop teacher at COSI, a place I’d visited again and again in my childhood. Could COSI be my future? Could I be one of those people, like Mike Stanley with his ChemMystery show, Jarvis Carr and his trained rats, and Leonard Sparks, Mr. COSI himself, with his crazy Isaac Newton wig?
I decided to try. To really try. Not a sloppy, half-hearted attempt, like almost everything else in my life, but an all-out, no-holds-barred headfirst dive, the kind that my baseball heroes Pete Rose and Joe Morgan would have made. I decided to give COSI everything I had.
The day of my first interview, I was waiting by the pendulum. A little boy came up to me and asked me how it worked. The next thing I knew I was down on the floor with him, swinging a weight back and forth to help him discover the amazing secret: the Earth below us, seemingly so solid and unchanging, is in fact moving every day!
Heather (my first boss at COSI) came over to me and said, “You must be Steve!” I don’t think it mattered what happened in the interview after that.
Twenty years later, COSI has changed me in ways that I never expected. I knew coming in that I loved to teach, but I never expected to get such joy from performance. As a kid I was meek, painfully shy, quiet to the point of pathology. At COSI I found my voice. On my show sheets I always write, “I am the Black Swan”; my way of saying that I just gave everything I am and everything I have to that performance.
Even more so, I never expected to become a leader. I am overwhelmed by the kind words and thoughts of those who have told me, to my complete and utter amazement, how I have inspired them. I never expected the joy I would experience at seeing those whom I’ve guided teach others with that same passion, commitment, and love that I feel in my own teaching. Even more than that, though, is the pride and pleasure I feel when I see young teachers truly discover themselves, not just my influence, but their own unique inner truth. You know who you are.
When it became clear that I must leave COSI, my first reaction was anger – at myself. I had let myself care too much. I had loved a place, and that place had not loved me back. How foolish of me not to take the advice, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”
But then my colleagues came to me, one after the other. They told me what my passion and my love had meant to them. They told me how I had changed them, how they were different, better people for having watched me follow my bliss. And then I knew: it is personal. It has to be personal. You have to feel it. Yes, it makes the pain so much greater when it finally ends. But that pain is better than not feeling at all. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. While I deeply respect this belief, I cannot share it. What, then, do I believe? I believe that all knowledge is fallible, and therefore mistakes are inevitable. But, as a friend recently reminded me, we are teachers. We teach anyway. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.
I’m still in love.
Goodbye, everyone, and go find your starfish!
Just as with Moby-Dick, I began this project on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hoping I would learn something. What about it? It’s hard to say if I learned something this time as opposed to all my other readings, as I’ve read the book now maybe nine or ten times. But there are some impressions that are perhaps evolving.
My view of the world has changed considerably since reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This includes, I think, my view of Huck Finn. Before reading those two life-changing books I would have seen Huck as a pure soul, and society at large as the evil entity that chipped away at his purity – the classic idea of the noble savage contaminated by the world. Huck, being somewhat outside society, is still affected by it, but is able to recognize things about society that others cannot. Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, is entirely immersed in his society and so his soul is lost.
Now I think that interpretation is just silly. Huck is a good person at heart, but it isn’t because society hasn’t affected him. Of course he’s been affected. Huck may live most of his life on the margins of society, but those margins are still part of the world of people. Look at Huck’s use of a gun, fire, fishing line, the raft itself. All these things are human creations.
More deeply, Huck’s morality and world view come from his society, too. It just so happens that Huck lives in a society that has a built-in and irresolvable cognitive dissonance, a society that thinks of itself as moral, and in many ways is more moral than earlier societies, but at its heart holds the belief that blacks are inherently inferior, not even truly human. Yet the society does have a very clearly-defined idea of what makes someone human, and that idea has truth in it. Eventually, someone is bound to realize another truth – black people are people, and owning them as property is just plain wrong.
Huck has no desire to hurt others; he knows this is wrong. He’s smart enough to figure out that those who have hurt him – his father, in particular – are living life poorly, while those who have given him some measure of help – the Widow, JudgeThatcher – are better, more worthy people.
What about Jim? In the beginning, Huck doesn’t see Jim in the same category as the Widow or Judge Thatcher, or even pap. Jim is just a prop, a plaything. Huck is prone to loneliness, and therefore he’s happy to have Jim along as they each try to escape in their own way from society. Huck’s also prone to adventures, and helping Jim escape is at first a great adventure. Huck is none too fond of Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, and so he’s unconcerned in the beginning about Miss Watson’s loss of property.
Soon, though, things start to change. On the one hand, Huck begins to see that Jim isn’t just a plaything; he’s a person with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams, just like any other person. This comes as a shock, as it doesn’t match what society has taught Huck about blacks. On the other hand, Huck begins to feel the depth of the crime he’s committing against that society. When a society is built upon a great immorality, the only way it can preserve that immorality is to stigmatize the very notion of questioning.
The institution of slavery is not something to be even questioned, let alone challenged. Why? Because it doesn’t take much questioning to find that the institution itself is immoral. As Huck begins to discover Jim’s true character, he realizes that those ideas he’s absorbed from society – one, good people are better than bad people and two, blacks are inherently inferior, in fact are not truly people at all – are mutually incompatible. When you recognize a cognitive dissonance like that, you have to do something about it or go crazy. You have to accommodate your world view to a new way of seeing the world. This dissonance is so radical that Huck has to build a new world view to accommodate it. But world-building is never perfect, and takes time. Huck’s new construct has room only for Jim, and not blacks in general, as people. But Huck is evolving, as we see throughout this extraordinary book. Perhaps, with time and experience, Huck will grow a little more. And as readers, so will we.
OK, I’ll finish with one more scene that makes me laugh. At the funeral of Peter Wilkes, the services are interrupted by a commotion from the basement of the church.
They had borrowed a melodeum—a sick one; and when everything was ready a young woman set down and worked it, and it was pretty skreeky and colicky, and everybody joined in and sung, and Peter was the only one that had a good thing, according to my notion. Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait—you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry—just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.
So long, Huck. It’s been a great ride.