An Epigenetic Life

Years ago, Diana and I sat upon a high bluff in the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park, watching wolves. For a time, they and we were equally immobile, all of our breaths suspended visibly in the quietude of a subzero December day. We were cold, but the pack – eleven of them all told – was at ease. They formed a monochromatic arc across a snowbound hillslope, each black, gray or white dot brought into stunning detail by the spotting scope before us. Occasionally, one would arch a back or scratch an ear, but that was it.

Until a coyote showed up.

The intruder picked his way along a swale far below the pack, occasionally cocking his head and thrusting a muzzle into the snow, while twenty-two eyes tracked his every move. Eventually the insult became too great. Three of the wolves, two white, one gray, began a steady and purposeful trot down the hill. The coyote stood tall, marked their approach…and ran like hell. Apparently convinced his prospects were dim in the open riverlands, and blocked by the wolves on the valley’s southern slope, he sprinted straight for us, veering late to cross the Lamar highway in a mad dash for the lodgepoles above. He made it, but with the wolves close behind. When the three returned to the valley a few minutes later, they told no secrets of what had happened amidst the trees.

It was a stark reminder of how the neighborhood had changed. Soon after the thumb_diana_elk_1024reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, elk and deer and coyotes who once did this…now had to do that. In turn, many plants and animals that for so long just couldn’t…well, now they could. Add it all up, and within only a few years the whole place was different. In the language of ecology, Yellowstone wolves are now an oft-cited example of a keystone species. When they are there, you get one thing. Take ‘em out, and pretty much everything changes.

This morning, as I took my first sips of coffee, I read an extraordinary facebook post from Scott Ferrenberg. It was one of those rare posts where a simple reply doesn’t cut it. Instead, I went for a run, mulled it over, and perhaps in an ode to Scott’s scientific brilliance, found three ecological concepts jostling for position in my mind. Keystone species was the first, for when you lose someone so fundamental in your life far before they should go, you cannot help but wonder if your entire ecosystem will cascade into something unrecognizable, devoid of a magic it once held.   Perhaps you know that their introduction to your life built that magic in the first place. Perhaps you know that it did so for countless others too. And so you ask: if she is now gone, how can the rest not follow suit?

But then I thought of a second concept, one that was brought into rather than born of ecology.  Resilience.  Herein lies the yang to keystone’s yin.   A truly resilient community can take the hit of losing any one of its members and keep on rollin’. Perhaps not without a dip in the road, perhaps not just as before, but fall apart? Nah. In ecology, as is our wont, debates are endless about what resilience truly means. It all reminds me of a moment years ago, when I sat amongst a group of ecologists while a prominent reporter from the New York times scolded us: too often, you scientists use details like a drunkard uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination.

Because the thing is, sit any one of us down and cut through those details, and we know what it means. Can you take a punch? Or not?

Diana’s physical resilience was both quantifiable and legendary. If you told her she couldn’t do something, you should bet on the over. The first time I ran with her, she sprained the hell out of her ankle, five muddy and rooty miles from home. She ran back. Then ran the same trail the next day, ankle taped and looking like an overripe cantaloupe. And I’ve already written here of an otherworldly strength from the day she was diagnosed to the day she passed.

Less obvious though (until perhaps this past year) was a mental resilience unlike any I have known. It wasn’t that she didn’t get down. It wasn’t that crappy stuff wouldn’t get to her. She didn’t pretend otherwise. But somehow, she imposed a brief time limit on any storm that came her way. She’d sit in their midst, feel their effects…and then usher them aside. For real, and for good.

Which brings me to the last concept. Nature vs. nurture is old school, something on all of our radar from adolescence, if not before. Amidst all that, we were taught that when it comes to our genes, you get what you get and the whole nurture thing has to work within those ground rules. Have brown eyes? The surroundings of your life will never make them blue. Topped out at five-foot-six but want to play in the NBA? Well, maybe you will (see Webb, Spud), but no person, place or thing can give you that extra foot.

Then along comes epigenetics to screw it all up for us.

Formally, environmental epigenetics refers to traits that not only get switched on at the genetic level because of something in the environment, they can be passed on to offspring once that switch is flipped. Think about that one too much and it will start to mess with you. But before you start yelling wait a damn minute, they told me in high school biology all that Lamarckian stuff was crap….well, for the most part, it is. Charlatans and soothsayers aside, if you suddenly develop a true inner peace you can’t genetically bake that into your kids’ DNA. Still, there’s a reason this is a burgeoning and fascinating scientific arena, for like the best of science, it’s tossing some traditional notions on collective heads and making us all rethink how heredity might work.

Which brings me back to Scott’s post, and the juxtaposition of keystone and resilience. As I wrote recently, of late I feel a dose of resilience I couldn’t necessarily predict only weeks ago. Is it partly a product of what was in my genes from day one? Maybe. Does it also emerge from the sum total of miles already trodden in my fifty years? Certainly. But to the latter, I know the miles I spent with Diana flipped a switch into a capacity for resilience not previously there. That I can smile and look ahead most days now because of what she built, not only in me, but in so many.  That I can look to this weekend’s celebration of her life with peace and even moments of joy.  And I know it will all be passed on to my children in ways once not possible.

Almost certainly, there is nothing epigenetic in any of this. Boil it all down and it’s classic nurture.

Yet it feels as though she changed our DNA. And that’s enough.





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