Between the Everything and the Nothing

Part of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field
Image via Wikipedia

Revolutions and Resolutions in a Bigger-picture New Year

January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of portals, of comings and goings, beginnings and endings—an odd-looking, two-faced deity who looks at once both where he’s been and where he is going.

And here in early January, we stand at just that vantage point—at least temporarily resolved to take a fresh look ahead into the uncharted new year, even as we look back at the way we’ve come for landmark lessons learned.

The Leonid Meteor Shower of November is an event as regular as cosmic clock work, a landmark lesson I count on every year to re-calibrate my own measure against the Grand Scale of Things.

Extraterrestrial grains of sand trace luminescent blue dashes across the black velvet sky with a fine-tipped brush. Time spent alone and silent under a canopy of constellations instructs in the cold-dark revelation of place and proportion in the world. But this year’s event was obscured by clouds, and I came inside disappointed.

Then, as if by accident, I found my landmark lesson. I traversed the expanse of the Cosmos by way of two four-minute videos that together, left me thrilled, pleasantly perplexed, and in awe of what we have been given thus far to know, from the micro-world of a human cell to the edge of space and time.

With hands still cold from my predawn cloud-watching, I first browsed to an Internet link of a new video journey by microscope, a revelation recently made public by scientists at Stanford University. The traveler moves ever deeper and at greater and greater magnification into an immensely complex constellation of nerve cells that only mammals possess. It is called the cerebral cortex.

The points of light in this cellular universe are synapses—the communication junctions between nerve cells. Every memory and emotion, every idea and every word ever uttered has come into being by the workings of the memory storage and information processing of synapses. These new studies reveal that there are more synapses and that they are more complex than we’d ever imagined.

Our brains contain 125 trillion of them—a number equal to the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, 1500 times over. A single human brain is “the most complex entity in the known universe” with “more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth” the study reports.

And then it came to me: I had been on a remarkably similar visual journey before, but through a telescope, with the lens peering out across light-years of space towards the most distant objects in the universe.

The Hubble Ultra Dark Field experiment in 2004 studied a view covering a tiny speck of sky equal to a grain of sand at arm’s length. What was recorded on the camera’s plates after ten nights focused on this narrow but  “ultra deep field” were over ten thousand galaxies, some so distant their light had been traveling for 13 billion years when it reached the Hubble camera. As I drank my second cup of coffee the morning of the obscured Leonids,  I watched the four-minute video to the very edge of the universe.

Even while our blue planet is less than a speck against all of time and space, we can wrap our heads around the cosmos. Each one of us is a colossus of living, thinking cells that can grasp some truth from the physical world from microscopic to telescopic—realities of the Grand Order that no generation before us has been granted to know. How is is possible we are not struck dumb every minute by the wonder of this place?

We’ve come far in humankind’s short history, and yet have only just begun to fathom the order and intricacies of the universe and how to live honorably and responsibly on our small, solid and hospitable part of it. Like Janus, we stand at the portal of this new cycle around our star, looking ahead and back, from our vantage point half way between the Everything and the Nothing.

In the understanding of our proportion to the cosmos mid-way between the neuron and the super-nova, let humility in our smallness make us careful, boldness in our ability to create make us courageous, wonder in our capacity to comprehend the cosmos bring deep reverence, and so make us more appreciative and cooperative inhabitants and stewards of this amazing place in the year to come.

Find resource reading for this piece, along with the Hubble and Synapses videos at

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AC: Not All It’s Cranked Up to Be

Growing up in the Deep South meant dealing with the heat in summer (well actually, from March through October in Alabama.) When we moved north to Virginia in 1974, I thought surely we had left 90-90 temp-humidities behind. But it’s feeling a lot like ‘bama in the Commonwealth this summer, and this has led me to consider that, once upon a time, Southern Americans employed evasive measures against the heat, and coped admirably with less grumbling and in greater relative comfort than today—even in the years before conditioned air.

Back then, southern folk drank iced tea (pronounced as a single word, “ahstee”) often holding the sweaty drink to our jugulars or temples to cool our brains. We sat on the ubiquitous screened front porches along elm-shaded streets to enjoy the relative coolness of an evening. The motion of the glider, porch swing or rocking chair often created the only stir in the thick, watermelon-and-zoyzia grass-scented air. As a floor-dwelling toddler, I remember a single oscillating fan, black, with whirling metal blades barely shielded by a sparse grillwork, it animal-like and perpetual looking right-left-right motion a source of amazement and one of my first memories.

The vents in the dashboards of our cars worked only when the car was moving and those little side windows  deflected tepid air onto our moist skin. Once, taking personal thermoregulation into our own hands on a vacation to Florida from Birmingham, we stopped at the Ice House in Woodlawn for a twenty-pound block of ice. It melted for hours right under the vent, cooling us as it puddled into a galvanized tub at my mother’s feet on the passenger side.

We had a roaring fan in the ceiling that, when you turned it on, sucked doors closed and lifted my hair and the shirt on my back gently towards the attic. My brother and I delighted in waatching balloons bump along the hardwood floors into the hallway and rise suddenly to be sucked tight against the louvers. We slept April til October with the cool night air filling the house the next morning, when the oscillator came on duty to blow the coolness around during breakfast.

We were far more thermally resilient in hot weather in those benighted days before humankind’s technological mastery collapsed our thermal tolerance to a mere few degrees hovering around the “ideal” 72 on which we now insist, 24/7.

Stan Cox, Senior Scientist with the Land Institute in Kansas, in his June 2010 book entitled Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-conditioned World, offers a host of facts to support the notion that we should rely less on the AC in coming decades. He tells the reader some surprising ways indoor climate control has changed American culture, politics, and even frequency of sex, and suggests that we can adopt more adaptive, less consumptive ways of beating the heat.

In a half century, our relationship to AC has come to resemble the dependencies of an addiction. Cox doesn’t argue that it’s immoral to be comfortable, but our shrinking comfort zone does have costs we should consider.

Today, 92% of new American homes are air-conditioned, and most of the electricity to produce our cool air comes at the expense of Appalachian mountaintop coal, hence the paradox: greater indoor climate control contributes to an outdoor climate out of control. Many of our politicians have the distorted notion that turning up the air-conditioning is the answer to global warming.

Our thermal tolerance has shrunk and adult and child alike have flocked to the Great Indoors, and our health is suffering. Kids are little exposed to friendly soil bacteria and nematodes that apparently “train” the immune system, and “nature deficit disorder” afflicts our denatured, thermally-sheltered young people. Even the obesity epidemic is compounded by our sedentary encampment inside in our Goldilocks, “just right” thermal bubbles.

Living in a less refrigerated society in coming decades may be both desirable and necessary, but for now, air conditioning is the water we swim in. It’s all around us, and we rarely think about it. Maybe we should and I think I will—from the front porch swing, with a folded newspaper fan and a big sweaty glass of ahstee.

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Rising for Another Day: The Firefly Ballet

At nine o’clock on a warm, calm and fragrant summer night, I am alone at the edge of our pasture, set deep in the fold between steep ridges on the eastern flank of Floyd County.

The whites of fleabane, chrysanthemum and Queen Anne’s lace glow faintly at that hour among the bowed heads and angled stems of orchard grass and foxtail.

A monochrome, crepuscular landscape is spattered with pastels of wild pink and golden aster. Soft radiance washes the field fading under sky-glow from somewhere beyond the curve of earth-horizon we never see down in this cleft of valley.

The pure observer that night would only have noted that fireflies are synchronized in the beginning of their day. I was that detached, objective observer—at first—as must come at the beginning when we encounter art new to us.

We assess physical qualities of a painting before moving in ways we do not understand to the higher awareness of message and meaning.

And when that moment of comprehension finally reaches our mind and heart, when we grasp the full impact of the creation before us, we know the AH of appreciation, the AHA of genius discovered, and finally, the complex mix of emotion that may leave us smiling through tears.

Some combination of light and heat stirs the performers from their sleep. The fireflies respond, waking and setting about to mate. They rise, one by one through a ten minute reveille for a long night of love.

Few and scattered at first, across the length and breadth of the field they lift—every one uniformly rising in a perfect vertical line of light, lanterns briefly tracing a thin, upward brush stroke of yellow-green just below the tops of the tallest grasses.

For minutes thereafter, they go dark—each insect having pulsed a single modest on-duty wink as their day begins.

Astonished, I watch this ascension of souls—an ineffable beauty of uplifting dance, a choreography of nature’s art. I watch in awe, these performers, hardwired to follow an ancient dance, born in each, lifted into the air each summer night by all together, a performance for my sake alone. And I am smitten, speechless and smile through tears.

In their ultimate hundreds, the full multitude of them wink and awake, the souls of all who have gone before us here, their cold lights lift to preside over this peaceful place in silence for yet another summer’s night while I sleep—and over all the nights I have slept for a decade of summers here, not knowing of this brief movement in the ballet of beetle-spirits just beyond my window. There’s comfort knowing I’ll never not know again.


I’d hoped to record this piece, with an intro musical bullet from All Through The Night, and outro of crickets and creek I’d recorded some time ago. But then some other stuff happened…

So here are the lyrics to that lullaby that seem a fit accompaniment to the memory of that evening at the Pasture Ballet of Light.

All Through the Night

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night;
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night.

Angels watching, e’er around thee,
All through the night
Midnight slumber close surround thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night

While the moon her watch is keeping,
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping,
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing,
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling,
All through the night.

Quietude: A Sweet Fragrance to the Ear

Tuggles Gap ~ Blue Ridge Parkway MP 166
Image by fred1st via Flickr

From Road Less Traveled column, Floyd Press, 17 June 2010

Can we sustain in our corner of southwest Virginia those amenities and virtues that make it a highly-livable place? We want to perpetuate the abundance of healthy local food, untainted and ample water, and a clear, odorless and breathable atmosphere. We’re very careful and concerned about what we eat, drink, inhale and see.

What we don’t think about so much as an environmental quality to be protected is our acoustic commons or “audiosphere.”

In mine just now there is sound from outside. Two things have to happen before I fully “hear” it—an initial objective perception followed by a subjective processing.

First, those sound waves have to reach the working parts of my middle and inner ear and be converted to nerve impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the temporal lobe of the brain to be registered in my awareness as simple sound, as a “raw perception.”

Sounds too intense for too long result in hearing loss that is a mounting problem in our noisy world, especially among our ear-budded young people. But it is more the impact of those sounds on our internal state beyond mere hearing that I’d like to focus on here.

Okay: my sound from outside is a bird. Do I recognize the pattern and quality? Is it threatening? Are there good or bad memories associated with this sound? Does it make me fearful or happy? Every sound we hear sets off a series of complicated judgments and decisions, reflexes and emotions.

Unwanted sound we call noise, an insult of civilization nineteenth century writer Ambrose Bierce described as “a stench in the ear.” Even low levels of secondhand sound produce a variety of hormonal and nervous changes in our bodies that can be bad for our health and quality of life.

Noise is a “non-specific stressor” triggering changes in our hormones and the working of internal machinery in what is called the “fight or flight” response. Our systems respond to noise as a threat to our well-being, health and safety. It interferes with a fully working thought-world.

Think about it. Complete this sentence: “When it’s noisy, I can’t __________.

Your responses might include: Sleep. Relax. Rest. Think. Focus. Concentrate. Read. Remember. Heal from stress, injury or illness. Meditate. Study. Write.

Children in noisy schools don’t learn well. Testing after airport runways or train traffic is reduced show significantly higher scores and measures of well-being.

We may sleep through the night, but our brain waves register traffic sounds that don’t wake us up but still trigger stress responses in our brain waves and leave us less fully rested. Noise incidents and related aggression are high on the list of civil complaints and crime reports in our cities.

Noise—unnecessarily loud or persistent or ugly sounds, and especially auditory pollution that could be avoided or is used intentionally as a means of annoyance—is as bad for our health as second-hand smoke. We need freedom from noise to be fully healthy and fully-functioning humans.

They go together, as Forrest would say, “like peas and carrots”: Peace. And quiet.

Quietude is a prerequisite to clarity of mind and soul. We claim it as a right yet we can deny it so easily to our neighbors by our indifference. Like smoke from a careless fire, noise passes unimpeded across property lines. We can close our eyes, but we can’t close our ears.

It takes so little to shatter another’s peaceful front-porch moment. And it is all the worse when it happens in places we go to for respite from busyness and the racket of everyday life. Un-muffled engine noise along the Blue Ridge Parkway or a passing car’s full-volume boom box through open windows at midnight as we sleep can accost us like acoustic litter tossed into our lives.

So the moral of this tale of good and bad decibels is to do acoustically unto others, and respect the quietude of your neighbors like you’d want them to do for you. We have a good thing going here. Listen. Read more on this topic in Fred’s annotated web pages at Diigo.

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Toxic Lunch: Decades of Exposure–Now What?

We’re being poisoned, and not by our enemies. More than 93% of American men, women and children have this substance in their tissues.

Research has linked it to cancer and heart disease, Type-II diabetes, obesity, sexual dysfunction including low sperm counts and early-onset puberty—not in laboratory animals or test tubes but in human populations. Concerns are especially high with regard to its impact on fetuses, infants and young children.

It exists almost universally in the coatings of food and drink cans and plastic bottles on our pantry shelves. Chances are, the sippy cups and polycarbonate infant bottles your children drank from this morning were lined with it, even though we’ve known since the 1990s that it is chemically related to estrogen and falls into a class collectively known as “endocrine disruptors.”

Some seven billion pounds of it are produced around the world each year as a hardening agent for plastic resins (including dental sealants) and its production and use represent a multi-billion dollar business for chemical manufacturers that include Bayer Material Science, Dow Chemical, General Electric Plastics, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, and Sunoco.

I would hope by now you already have guessed the chemical in question: BPA, short for bisphenol-A. But its name has only occasionally and briefly risen into the public-health radar. For the companies listed above, short press dwell-time has been a measure of their control over the whole truth about this chemical.

BPA is a substance about which the party line has been—until very recently—that it is completely safe unless, according to a CDC guideline, you ingest 1,300 pounds of canned and bottled food daily.

The fox has been guarding the henhouse—the chemical companies mostly police themselves! But you can expect to be exposed to BPA’s closeted skeletons in coming months. Long term studies have now been completed, and the subjects have been you, me and our children.

In January, 2010, the FDA finally elevated the status of BPA’s health effects to “some concern.” And reaching even this tentative caution has been hard won, because the money, power and influence backing the “product defense” consultants is enormous and their quest is not for the truth but to sustain profitability for stockholders no matter what.

This is a scenario nauseatingly similar to the twisted science “supporting” the lack of risk from tobacco, PCBs and Agent Orange, and includes some of the very same sleazy Washington law firms on the industry-defense side.

Consider this fact: of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.

When our second grand daughter was born in September 2007, we were concerned about BPA in the baby’s bottles. Our daughter countered our objections with the “common wisdom” that said it was safe. The data was so biased by the influence of the American Chemistry Council’s spin that I was not able to show her conclusively why she should choose glass bottles instead.

Today, the evidence against BPA is easier to find, and consumer pressure is having an impact. Might we hope that perhaps someday, the Federal Drug Administration  would become an actual watchdog over rather than a partner to industry?

The six largest US manufacturers of baby bottles will no longer sell bottles made with BPA. In April 2008, Canada banned BPA from use in baby bottles nation-wide. But there is new if not surprising evidence even the oceans bear a BPA burden. In March of this year, BPA was found around the world in sea water and beach sand, apparently leaching from nautical paints and/or the massive gyres of Styrofoam and other plastic flotsam that circulate in our seas.

No less than in the era of Silent Spring, we owe it to future generations to pay attention and take an active voice to insure the quality and content of what we eat, drink and breathe. “Better living through chemistry” is a hopeful industry catch phrase, but it does not come with a guarantee.

You CAN reduce your family’s exposure to BPA, some suggested actions listed here and find BPA resources for this article here.

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