22 August 2005

Hillarity in the weighing cupboard today. One of the envelopes with leaf samples was labeled, "unknown creep." I laughed and laughed.

40 hours to go...

20 August 2005

Final party of the year tonight at Abisko Naturvetenskapliga. The theme: Abisko World Championship Sporting Games - Defend Your Nations Honour. My nations honour?

Aside from my boss who was with us for two weeks on Svalbard, I've met no other Americans. I've unwillingly assumed a diplomatic role. Deploring our deplorable actions, trying to remind, in the most unobtrussive manner possible, that most Americans don't support current international politics. Hinting that there are still a lot of great things going on in America, things beyond our controversial role internationally. I'm also hyper aware of how things I do and say can fuel or breakdown prejuidice. A cumbersome responsibility.

And sometimes I just can't play diplomat anymore and I find myself on the defensive. Criticisms directed at America, or America's foreign policy have started to feel like personal attacks. It's the strangest emotion. The first time I remember feeling defensive for my country was when I was a kid and my family had a young Swiss woman over for dinner. She commented that is was funny how we display our flag so much, especially after all the bad things we've done as a nation. My parents were understanding and encouraging. I felt like telling her she was not invited to stay for desert. That evening I wrote in my journal that we might not be proud of everything that America has done in the past, but that we are proud of the progress we've made, of the good things (and they are many) that we have done. Most of all we are hopeful of what we'll become, so why not fly a flag to proclaim that? My analogy was of a person who goes through life confidently, making mistakes like we all do, but learning from them and becoming a better person for it.

After this summer I'm just plain fed-up with anti-Americanism. Well thought out political critique I understand and welcome. Blatant, derisive sentiments directed at American people or culture I have lost my ability to tolerate, even if said in jest.

The other day I was discussing the Commonwealth Games with a British girl. She'd been taking wanton jabs at America for weeks and I was feeling vengeful.

(discussing world championship swimming records)
British Girl: We have Commonwealth records, from the Commonwealth games. All former British territories participate, well, except the US.

Me: (innocently) Oh, so you mean like for all those poor African nations you raped and pillaged for hundreds of years?

BG: (turning an angry red) Well, I guess America is having it's day as the evil empire...

Me: (wryly) So there is hope, then, that America will lose it's clout and become another washed-up, snivelling nation like Britian, with nothing left but the shards of a dying legacy?

BG: (giving me two middle fingers) What-ever.

Revenge is still sweet, even if it's not politically correct.

This article from the NY Times. "swam and clambered over chunks of ice"?!

NORWAY: ARCTIC RESEARCHERS SAVED FROM POLAR BEARS Three unarmed Polish researchers stranded for 15 hours on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, a Norwegian territory in the Arctic, were rescued by helicopters as polar bears were closing in on them, officials said. "It was the worst imaginable situation," said Peter Braaten of the Svalbard governor's office. The three men, from the Polish research ship Horyzont, had set out in a small inflatable boat to pick up equipment on one of the islands, but it capsized. They swam and clambered over chunks of ice to get to the island of Edgeoya. At least three polar bears where within 20 yards of the men when the helicopter picked them up. "That is dangerously close," Mr. Braaten said. (AP)

19 August 2005

Received news from my mentor today. I'd put off telling her about my engagement for ages, fearing she'd disapprove of me choosing a life in which a career in science could only ever be my number two priority. She was, of course, excited for me and offered her best wishes. She seems great, greatly enjoying her new post-doc, a local field site, and being freed from stressful confines of the Cornell community. She says she's loving science again. Direct quote: "I really like learning about Carbon!" Her happiness means a lot to me, and her enthusiasm for science is contagious, and is part of what helped me fall in love with it in the first place. The trouble is, I can't see myself ever exclaiming over my love of learning about carbon, or nitrogen, or any other element for that matter.

I like science well enough. Ecology is especially interesting. It's a field that has formed and progressed rapidly in the last 50 years through a marvelous integration of every other branch of science. It's fascinating to listen to a well put together lecture (or read a well done scientific paper) that flows, narrative style. Old-hat beliefs are laid out in the exposition, the rising action of progressive thought leads to an ingenious experimental design which, at the climax, reveals some new ecological paradigm. The best part is that the conclusions don't end with neat, newly established equilibria. Instead a series of further questions are raised by the new understanding, filling the listener with speculative hope and wonder. It's fun. Open-ended, but tidy enough.

The most this proves about me is that I appreciate a well-worked lecture and a good story. It says nothing about my love of science. It says nothing of my desire to acquire knowledge through the scientific method. It says nothing of my possession of the deep curiosity that engenders all truly great scientific discovery. Perhaps my handicap is the inability to delve into an unfinished narrative, full as such creatures are of the insecurities of a yet unknown end. This doesn't seem to bother me in most endeavors, but for some reason in science it seems insurmountable. Maybe because I don't believe in the ending possibilities as much. Or would just as soon believe in some easy aphorism that fit congruently enough with my previous beliefs. Logical, methodical proof just gets in the way sometimes. I've always been more of a mystic than science seems to allow.

There are some openings at the bookstores in Falmouth. Eight Cousins, Inc, a children's bookstore, and Inkwell Bookstore. I know I have idealistic and wholly unrealistic visions of what such a job would entail. (And I'm not even allowing myself to think about the pay cut.) But surely there would be moments. A parent would come in, ask my advice on a gift for their horse-loving 10 year old daughter, and I would recommend the perfect triage of books, having in my day read all of the available literature for horse-loving 10 year olds. The parent is thankful, I'm immensely pleased. This low-stress job would leave me with plenty of mental and emotional energy to spend with Mac in our cozy cottage, with a cozy assemblage of books, a fireplace and a bubble bath. I can't imagine a more wholly perfect life. I'd probably end up mind-numbingly running credit cards or constantly reshelving books that unruly children have thrown on the floor. This human interaction, however maddening, would still be preferable to continuing with the only profession I've trained to do. The profession that promises to have me sitting hunched over a balance for several months, packing ground leaves into 0.0035 gram packets. No way to spend a glorious autumn on the Cape.

15 August 2005

Back in Abisko, Sweden. The long twilight and darkness, so missed over the past few months, gives Abisko Naturvetenskapliga Station an intimacy it lacked earlier in the summer. An intimacy increased by the wild, stormy weather and imminent fall. An intimacy that leaves me with some wistfulness at having not spent more time getting acquainted with people outside my lab group. Perhaps I will have some nostalgia for this place after all. I had been adamant earlier in the summer that I could wish away this time as foolishly as I pleased, sure of the fact that I could build no fond memories here without Mac. But the place has endeared itself to me, and the people, as people everywhere are apt to do, have unwittingly claimed places of fondness in my heart. I will miss them, however little they may know of it. I'll be left wondering years from now what their fate has been, somberly contemplating the privlege and tragedy of passing through so many curious peoples' lives and not having the time to fully unfurl the mystery of each.

It wouldn't be appropriate to go into descriptions of each of the residents here, but an explanation of the research station would give a sense of the space we share. It's a state-of-the-art research facility, much nicer than any of the other research stations I've had internments at. It gives airs of of luxury and is riddled with delightful little quirks. Each step and staircase is marked with broad, yellow and black striped, caution tape applied to the floor, tape that's used plentifully on the spiral staircases and the many single steps in the winding and narrow corridors. There are no 'normal' staircases, but the most unusual is through the doorway aross from my room. This staircase exists in a cupboard approximately 4 feet squared; it winds steeply up to the next floor, where it spills out through another door into a quiet corridor, a secret passageway of sorts.

The halls are peppered with an abundance of doors with strange latches that require a substantial use of muscle to get them to give way. Once the latch has been undone they whoosh open wildly and then gently shut, the latches redoing themselves in a magical, mechanical way. Air suction from the trash and laundry shutes (standing ready to whisk any hint of untidiness away) causes an eerie whistling to echo through the halls, changing in pitch and volume with the opening of each door.

There are two indoor saunas across from the gas chromatography room. Tiny kitchenettes and cozy dorm rooms are nestled between hydrology labs and drying cupboards. One room is strictly used for the 10:00 AM coffee break. It's elegantly decorated with woven birch bark wainscoting and star shaped lamps that form constellations on the ceiling. Overall, an exemplary model of Scandinavian efficiency, tidiness and attention to detail. A haven for the all-consuming life of field research. I roll out of bed and across the hall to the kitchen for breakfast, then walk through a few whooshing doors to the labs, where leave samples wait to be plucked. On rainy days I walk down a narrow corridor and up two spiral staircase to the library. There I settle can settle in for a day of data entry next to the modish, white, adobe fireplace, from which point I can watch the storm rage across lake Torneträsk through the floor to ceiling windows.

If set to sail, the station would be the perfect reincarnation of the Bellafonte, the ship from Bill Murray's Life Aquatic.

I spent all day in the weighing cupboard, weighing 753 individual envelopes of dried leaves. Attempting to extract some modicum of truth in 0.0056 gram increments.

12 August 2005

I've changed the description under my blog title. Since my creative writing class ended this blog has been banging around, trying to find something useful to do with itself. I don't really have a profession, and no clearly focused passions. I do, however, have a compelling need to document events, thoughts, and observations in my life. I document in handwritten notebooks, in letters and e-mails, in word documents I type to myself, and in this blog. I like the quote Josh Corey has up over at Cahiers de Corey by Jorgen Leth: "A notebook is an improvement in the art of living."

I know that keeping notes is an improvement in the art of living for me, but is it for everyone? Isn't it sort of obsessive-compulsive? Something my modern dance teacher said about scrapbooking resonates. We were driving to a costume fitting and she told me about her friends who had recently discovered scrapbooking. They had started throwing weekly scrapbooking parties and had acquired all of the foofy papers and scissors that serious scrapbooking requires. My dance teacher didn't understand the point of her friends' newfound passion. She thought it was a waste to spend time putting zig-zag edged frames and bows around memories instead of getting out and making new ones. I sometimes feel the same way about all the time I spend figuring out how to word something just so, for just the right effect. Maybe I'd do better to get on with the business of three-dimensional living.

I think serious scrapbookers have a deep need to catalogue their memories, and to catalogue them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Don't we all have a need for evidence that our lives are worth living? Scrapbookers go about it by having books full of beautiful memories. Writing helps me feel like I'm learning from each day, that each day has yielded some new knowledge, understanding, or feeling that will be of some use or importance in the future. People like my modern dance teacher maybe get the same evidence in a less tangible way, in their vision of the impact they have on the people and the environment around them, in validation from friends and coworkers, in a sense of self-worth and growth that doesn't need to be written down or to have construction paper pasted around it. For people like that, taking the time to write notes about the day or to catalogue memories might be more onerous than it would be benificial.

So why this blog? Without a community or information the general public is interested in, this space is most like an open, private notebook. Only since it's open I can't write things I don't want the whole world knowing and I have to make more effort to keep it cohesive (and it probably means I should start using spell check). If i'm completely honest I think I've kept with it because this is my way of seeking validation of my worth as a writer. And why do I need that? Maybe so I can tip the balance from pointing to a plant ecologist who writes to a writer who does plant ecology to pay the bills.

01 August 2005

Most days in the field I have on the following layers: undershirt, polypro longsleeve shirt, wool sweater, down vest, windproof fleece, winter jacket, wool hat, fingerless gloves, long underwear and snowpants. Still I'm left shivering in the wind, which blows cold off the 2 degree C ocean, and cooler when it rushes down the valley from the glaciers.

The funny thing is that the longer term residents keep saying that this has been an unusually warm summer, with temperatures up to 10 degrees C. The average July temperature is only 5 degrees C.

I wonder how people in an arctic coal mining town feel about global climate change? It's such a contradiction. They mine enough coal to heat and power the town. In addition they ship several barges a year to someplace in the world that doesn't have coal pouring out of the mountainsides at every turn. Every truckload that is mined and burnt contributes to the rise in atmospheric CO2 that is causing an increase in the rate of glacial retreat, changes in sea ice patterns which threatens polar bears and other arctic sea animals, and wide and varying effects on arctic vegetation. Every extra ton of coal burnt for the hotels and restaurants contributes to the demise of the very things tourists come to see. (Though maybe this can be justified on the basis that having people experience this landscape makes them more inclined to make choices that will help protect it.)

So how do people in a bitterly cold, touristy, coal-mining town feel about global climate change? If it comes down to how many layers they have to wear in the summer, they're probally all for it.