The Lessons of Biogeochemistry

One of the academic journals in my field – Biogeochemistry – is adding an editorial to each issue, motivated in large part by the events of the last few months and the concerns those are causing across all of science (and beyond).  I love to see academic journals break the mold and try new things, and I applaud Editor-in-Chief Kate Lajtha and the board for doing this.

I was asked to write one of the commentaries – found here – and while I did so through the lens of biogeochemistry, I believe the points extend across much of science and academia.  We as a broader community are facing almost unprecedented attacks, many of them unfair to be sure. And many of them dangerous, not just to academia but to society.  But…we also must recognize where we need to change and do better.  Finally, while some urgency is warranted right now, we should not forget the lessons of history within and beyond our science.  There is optimism to be found.

As always, I welcome any thoughts you might have.  Also check out the other pieces, all open access.  The first is led by Kate on behalf of the editorial board and it’s here.  The second was written by Bill Schlesinger – found here.

Hope and Strength

The moment where her eyes roll back into her head is the hardest.  For then it is time to kiss her goodbye before I must leave the stark operating room with the lasting image of those untethered eyes.  Before I must sit and wait and try not to think of her lying on that glaring antiseptic table with a hole drilled through the back of her sinus cavity and an array of cameras and cauterizers and suction devices tracing a path from the outside world to her remarkable brain.   Before I sit and think of nothing but that.

neva_anesthesiologistShe is in there now.  Prior to her short trip from prep room to OR, she high fived the anesthesiologist.  She laughed at her godmother and me dressed in our white surgical bunny suits.  She set her jaw as she has too often for the past three years and radiated a strength that, every time, makes even the hardened veterans of a level three hospital step back and comment.  How old are you again sweetheart?  My goodness you are brave.  Her mother’s child.

Most of them have no idea just how brave.  How she wakes up night after night and asks if her tumor is like mom’s, if she will be ok.  How I try to reassure her but how in the end it is her that leans into the rising waves of anxiety and says not this time either.  Then begins to talk matter-of-factly about how it will all go down.  Wait dad so they will make a hole to get to my brain and then put a camera in there?  Yes.  And then how will they get the tumor out?  With special tools, almost like a tiny vacuum.  Will I have a tube in my arm when I wake up?  Yes, just like before.  Can I watch movies?  Of course honey.  OK dada, I’m going to sleep now.  I sit beside her in the dark and shake my head in wonder as I have a thousand times before.

Last night a variant on the script, signs of molten pools beneath leaking out with greater force as the moment approached.   A tremor as she hugged a favorite blanket.   Dada I’m scared.  I don’t think I can sleep.  I think to myself ok no surprise, could be a long night, good god has she earned the right.  Then it’s dada are you scared and as I consider what balance of truth and optimism to strike she says it’s ok dada I’ll be right there with you and somehow I don’t fall completely apart.  Then she begins to talk of the new puppy coming her way, of trips later this spring and summer, of her upcoming school musical.  She recites her lines.  And then goes to sleep, her trip to the operating room but eight hours away.

As I sit there once more an old Dickinson poem comes to mind.

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Later, I sleep too, knowing once again that she will be ok because nothing else is acceptable.  To her.

Update:  Little did I know when I wrote this how the next 24 hours would be a microcosm of her path and resilience.  The initial report after surgery was that, yet again, part of the tumor had to be left behind.  Then she went through a scary few hours of unstable blood pressures and unexpectedly rocky post-operative recovery, with fears of a rapidly acting infection.  But she pushed through it.  Then she learned of the surgical outcome…because she asked and she deserves to hear the truth.  As always, she handled it astoundingly well.  And then her eternal hope was rewarded:  the post op MRI showed us that the apparent remnant left behind turned out to be normal tissue that was just altered a bit by the tumor’s growth, something very difficult to tell apart in surgery.  A gift she most certainly deserves.

The Science of our Lives

I thought hard before writing and submitting the piece published in the Washington Post today.    It’s obviously highly personal, and I didn’t elevate our story to a national stage lightly.  But in the end I did so because we are not living in anything close to normal times, and along with so many other reasons to stand up for what matters, I know Diana would have been appalled to see what has happened over the past year, since the election, and especially since the inauguration.  And that she would have acted on it by trying to make a difference.  I’ll continue to do the same.  I hope you do as well.  It’s not about Democrats and Republicans, and is about far more than science.  We are seeing the fundamental values of our country, and the pillars of human morality, completely tossed aside. Please be a part of proving that our country is far better than that, no matter what your political leanings might be.

 

Alpenglow

Right now, the mountain where we first took flight, that is our daughter’s namesake, is visible from my cabin window only as an outline.  A thin and partial corona from the Front Range cities on its opposite side define the summit, but cannot obscure a brilliant splash of stars above. Soon enough, the stars will fade and the mountain will begin to define itself, first softly, and then with increasingly sharp, rose-tinted detail.  It will be capped with snow, but beneath lies a basic form that is about 300 million years old.  In parts of the mountain lie veins of rock that date back to the dawn of multicellular life, more than a billion years before the first real ancestors of the trees that now line its flanks.

img_8708In short, Mt. Neva has seen some things.  Dinosaurs in its valleys, new mountain ranges popping up around it, the rise and fall of a great inland sea.  The upheaval of my own last few years would not even move its needle, let alone make its top 100 list.  But the constellations above its dark form remind me that within its ancient rocks, within the snow and trees above those rocks, within you, me and the extraordinary woman who left us a year ago tomorrow lies the dust of long distant stars.  The thought, coupled with the first rays of sun behind the peak, brings me a peace often elusive in the past year.

If nothing else, the year has taught me that grief is a force like no other I have known, as uncontrollable as those that gave rise to the mountain before me.  It is not, at least for me, a relentless beat-down, and it does not prevent certain joys from still entering life.  But it is there, always, a punctuated equilibrium that pushes lightly some days, and then with astounding and unpredictable force on others. Often, the explosions come when I try to control it.

I have never been a religious person, but I hold a certain draw to those of the far east.  Maybe it’s my roots in Hawaii, maybe the love of nature.  (Maybe only a less meaningful and more clichéd link).  Still, of late I’ve found increasing comfort in ancient passages from the east that remind of us of the enduring power and peace of simply looking at a mountain.  Of decorating a tree with one’s daughter.  Of being kind and seeking your own harmony in the lift of others.

At times, these passages also preach a peace that should emerge from reminding ourselves that our lives are all but a blink of a geologic eye. It’s here that I depart from their theology.  For while our flashes may be brief, some of them are impossibly bright.  And to me, everything that matters lies in that illumination.  It’s not one defined by title or possessions or on-paper accomplishment.  It’s one defined by how much of your own light sparks those that lie in everyone else.

A year later, I am seeing Diana’s light still burning not only in so many people that I know, but in others of whose existence I’m still only just learning.  One of those who knew her, but not me, wrote a couple months back, expressing her own grief in part by saying “how sad, for she was destined for greatness.”  I wanted to return with:  No, she had already arrived.  One’s illumination is not measured in years, but intensity, and hers shown with both an ease and brilliance not often seen.

Over the past year, my own light has flickered frequently, sometimes frighteningly so.  In a year of many upheavals, the worst moments are when I see my daughter, mostly comprised of Diana’s same spirit and iron strength, crumple under frequent nightmares that I will soon follow her mother into the grave.  For a child bearing her own brain tumor, these moments are far beyond heartbreaking.  But then I look at a mountain, and remember that we each have more than a dusting of the light Diana put in us, and that Neva’s is unquenchable.  As for my own, I find it burns more steadily when I don’t swim upstream against the grief, but rather let it simply carry me towards the building of a new life that will still do all it can to uphold her legacy.  Part of that means a relentless commitment to helping and inspiring others.  Part of it means trying to question everything without ego.  Part of it means doing it all with a shit-eating grin whenever possible.

And all of it means finding peace in the everyday beauty of our lives.

A Conversation

In The Solace of Wide Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich writes of hard won comfort after the death of a loved one, and of how her eventual peace is forged from the “absolute indifference” of a stark yet beautiful Wyoming landscape.  Paradoxically, given the title, she also writes that true solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.

Perhaps.  But for me, solace is not independent of place.  For as long as I can remember, both my equanimity and unbridled joy were most assured beneath the biggest of skies.  Psychology – pop and otherwise – likes to tell us that we are happiest when we can simply be ourselves.  And it is here that another Ehrlich quote resonates most:  Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.

For the last six months – hell, for the last nearly three years – I have been that river.  I have also learned that I flow2618fcd1eb602ab1a81d3cbe931f4fbe best and clearest either when crisis is right before me, or when I am amidst the landscapes that have always burnished my rougher edges.  And so I ran her favorite trail today, amidst the scents of pine and sage and beneath russet slabs sent aloft nearly 300 million years past.  Along this trail, and in the town below, she is everywhere, so it is fitting that she lies right where they merge.  As I have done several times since last January, I ran to her.  In past visits, I found myself saying a few words, shedding a few tears, mostly just sitting with her.

IMG_6983Today, I talked at length.  Talked to her of life and love and of how she lives on in the hearts and minds and actions of so many.  Told her stories of things people have done since she passed, friends and family alike, that would fill her with joy and pride.  Told her of the recent horrors in the world too, of the hate and fear and violence, of how now more than ever the world needs people who live as she did.  Told her of the incredible poise and grace and courage at her service that emanated from her sister, her stepchildren, her close friends.  Of how she herself set the tone for that service by asking for the band that was so completely perfect. And of how her daughter, as she has done without fail for the last nearly three years, continues to lead the way for so many of us with the kind of joy, curiosity, resilience and generosity that defined her mother.  As I rambled on, I started to ask her the big questions that lie before me.  And then I began to feel her answering back.

Wait a minute, you’re now asking, what kind of mumbo jumbo séance BS is this?

Sorry to disappoint, but no paranormal tales to tell.   I simply did, in a small way, what flows throughout Ehrlich’s book:  put in a bit of physical effort amidst a wide open space, so that the cacophonies of daily life could fade away and the voices I want most to shape me could be heard.   And as I talked of my hopes and dreams and sorrows in a new reality I still cannot always grasp, I could hear her once again.  Hear her remind me to live boldly, generously, fully.  Remind me to pour my energies into what matters most, and to lift myself by lifting others first.  Remind me that there is no greater solace and joy than that which comes by being generous, by being endlessly curious, and by never being afraid to fail.  Remind me to listen to what’s deep inside, and to take the big chances before me, even if some of them crash and burn.  And remind me that all of this is best done with the kind of shit-eating grin she wore better than anyone.

I can’t match the grin.  But the rest?  It’s a map I can follow.

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.